Commentary

UCLA, USC are tough to figure

Updated: January 24, 2010, 4:01 PM ET
By Ramona Shelburne | ESPNLosAngeles.com

Let's start with what we can say conclusively about the USC and UCLA men's basketball programs:

USC's Marcus Johnson just might be the best dunker in the nation.

UCLA's Mustafa Abdul-Hamid has a thing for buzzer-beaters.

And nobody particularly cares for all the rain that drenched Southern California this week.

After that ...

Well, it's hard to commit to much else, let alone predict what each team will do over the last 11 games of the Pacific-10 Conference season.

In the span of a week, UCLA coach Ben Howland went from telling the media he was "embarrassed" and apologizing, it seemed, to all past, present and future Bruins after an atrocious loss to the Trojans at Pauley Pavilion, to optimistic and sunny after an impressive sweep of the Washington schools.

USC coach Kevin O'Neill's swing was more condensed but no less pronounced. Thursday night he was angry and deflated after his team blew a 15-point second-half lead in a loss to Washington State, but by Saturday night, after an 87-61 rout of Washington, he was back to his default mood of confident and feisty.

Despite the wild week in the Pac-10, the dust settled just about right back where it had been kicked up after last week, with five teams -- including USC (12-7 overall, 4-3 in the Pac-10) and UCLA (9-10, 4-3) -- tied for second place in the conference.

Don't let the standings influence you too much, though: USC and UCLA are in very different places.

Just listen to their leaders.

"I'm frankly [ticked] we're not in first place," O'Neill said. "We let a game get away from us with a 15-point lead the other night."

Howland seemed much more grateful to be where the Bruins are in the standings.

"Our team has to play exactly how we're playing right now to continue forward and have success," Howland said after an easier-than-expected 74-62 win over the Cougars on Saturday afternoon. "We have limited things we can do."

The difference in tone goes back to what we learned after the Trojans' 67-46 rout of the Bruins a week earlier at Pauley Pavilion: USC has an identity; UCLA is dealing with an identity crisis.

"We know exactly who we are," O'Neill said. "We're a team that has to play great defense to win, our offense feeds off our defense. We don't shoot well from the perimeter, you can just look at our percentages and see that. We know where our scoring has to come from, and our roles are very well defined."

The problem for the Trojans is they don't always play that way.

"We're still coming together," junior forward Alex Stepheson said. "That's why we've lost some games we probably should've won."

Meanwhile in Westwood, Howland spent the week reinventing his team and swallowing hard on the fact that to win with their current personnel, the Bruins are going to have to play a lot of zone defense.

For a coach who has earned a reputation as one of the best defensive coaches in college basketball, for whom man-to-man defense was previously something of a commandment, not an option, that pill goes down about as smoothly as pine tar.

"It was actually very poor coaching on my part for not recognizing earlier," Howland said through clenched teeth. "It's not something we want to do, but it's something we need to do in order to be competitive and win games."

But as senior forward Nikola Dragovic noted, "He's all about winning and we are too, so I don't care what we do as long as we win."

But after suffering the worst loss to USC in almost half a century the previous Saturday, everything in Westwood was up for review.

Howland even admitted to both the media and the players in the locker room that he'd "prayed hard" before Thursday's game against the Huskies (12-7, 3-5), who probably are still the most talented team in the conference except when they play outside the Seattle city limits (0-5).

His prayers were answered first by UCLA's freshman and sophomore classes, which collectively stepped up with their best performances of the season, and then by a former walk-on, Abdul-Hamid, who swished a 20-foot buzzer-beater to send Pauley Pavilion into a frenzy Thursday night.

That momentum carried over into Saturday, where the Bruins finally started looking like a team with a clear sense of how to win games.

The operative word in that sentence is "momentum."

You have be cautious in using it anywhere near either of our local basketball programs this season.

Ramona Shelburne is a columnist and reporter for ESPNLosAngeles.com.

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