UCLA men’s basketball to battle crosstown rival USC, hopes to maintain win streak

Winter break is a time for rest, relaxation and… rivalry games?

No. 10 UCLA men’s basketball (13-2, 4-0 Pac-12) will take on crosstown rival USC (11-4, 3-1) in Pauley Pavilion on Thursday – four days before classes resume for both schools after winter break. The matchup is tied for the second earliest in a season between the two schools in at least the last 24 years of the rivalry.

With students still making their way back to campus, senior guard/forward Jaime Jaquez Jr. said he’s disappointed not everybody will be in Westwood to watch the game.

“You want to have campus rolling and have everyone here to enjoy – this is something people come to college for,” Jaquez said. “It’s a bummer.”

But Jaquez added that he knows the product on the court won’t be affected – especially with the game announced as a sellout.

“For those who are (on campus), it’s going to be a great game,” Jaquez said.

Four of the last six matchups between the schools have finished with margins in single digits, three of which came down to the last possession.

So far this season, the two schools are only one game apart in the conference standings. USC is currently third, while UCLA is tied with Utah for first in the Pac-12.

“We know them extremely well (and) they know us extremely well,” said coach Mick Cronin.

After some early struggles – including a double-digit loss to Florida Gulf Coast in its season opener and back-to-back defeats to Tennessee and Wisconsin – USC rattled off seven straight victories before falling to Washington State on Sunday.

Cronin said his opponent’s recent success starts on the defensive end.

The Trojans currently rank only 69th nationally in Kenpom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric, but they have finished in the top 50 each of the past three seasons under coach Andy Enfield – including a top-six finish in 2020-2021.

USC is led defensively by forward Joshua Morgan, who has eight games with three blocks or more – including a pair of seven-block performances – and leads the conference with 3.8 blocks per game. Opponents shoot only 41.5% from two-point range against the Trojans, good for fourth in the country.

“It’s really hard to score around the basket against them,” Cronin said. “That’s what they do – it’s really hard to score in the half court.”

Offensively, USC is led by a pair of seniors in guards Boogie Ellis and Drew Peterson.

Ellis, a former Memphis transfer who has played in three career games against UCLA, paces the Trojans in scoring at 16.1 points per game, while Peterson isn’t far behind at 14. The latter Trojan is also the team’s leading assistant at 5.3 per night .

Fifth-year guard David Singleton said containing Ellis and Peterson – who averaged north of 30 points per game combined in three games against the Bruins a year ago – will be the key to victory.

“(Peterson is) a great scorer and he’s a willing passer. Boogie Ellis is a great point guard (who) can really create his shot,” Singleton said. “We just have to be ready to match their intensity as a team.”

UCLA is entering the crosstown matchup on the heels of a winning streak on the season and in the series.

The Bruins have won 10 games in a row on the campaign, beating opponents by an average mark of 20.4 points per game over that stretch. They also won two straight against the Trojans, including a victory in a Pac-12 Tournament semifinal game last March. Before those two wins, however, UCLA lost Cronin’s first five contests in the crosstown rivalry matchup.

Jaquez said he is channeling that latter history for motivation Thursday.

“We won the last two, but I still don’t forget what happened before then,” Jaquez said. “It’s still in the back of my mind.”

While Jaquez said he knows the Bruin faithful are just as excited as he is for the matchup, he noted that the empty campus is an inauspicious host for such a landmark game.

“There’s no one on campus right now,” Jaquez said. “I wish I could talk to everybody and see how excited they were.”

Thursday’s game will tip off at 6:30 pm in Pauley Pavilion.

Injury update

One Bruin freshman will not be making his crosstown rivalry debut Thursday.

Freshman guard Amari Bailey will not play versus USC because of a foot injury, according to Cronin. Bailey missed UCLA’s two most recent games, against Washington State and Washington, because of the injury.

“It’s just going to take some time,” Cronin said. “It’s not anything that is going to affect his career. … He’ll be back out there when he’s ready.”

Singleton is expected to make his third straight start in Bailey’s place. The fifth-year guard is averaging 11 points per game in his three starts this season.

Leave a Comment