Trojans prepare for UCLA's 'young talent'

USC and UCLA will match up on Saturday for the first time this season.

Both teams are dealing with some serious issues.

The Trojans are on a two-game losing streak and are ineligible for postseason play; the Bruins are having their worst season in years, plagued by injury and transfer.

But the cross-town rivals have had six days to prepare for each other now, and changes are a'coming.

At practice Thursday night, USC coach Kevin O'Neill emphasized to his team something that seems obvious but wasn't in evidence against Stanford and Cal: the importance of maximizing what they're good at and minimizing their weaknesses.

Simply put, that means getting the ball into the post, early and often.

And letting everything else run through there.

O'Neill said the performance of his forwards — Nikola Vucevic, Alex Stepheson, and Leonard Washington — are impacting the rest of his team's offense. Upon point guard Mike Gerrity's debut against Tennessee and in the Diamond Head Classic, O'Neill's team did just that.

But against Stanford and Cal last weekend, the Trojans struggled to get the ball in the post at all. Part of that's due to defensive adjustments by opponents. Part of it's USC's post players not responding to those adjustments.

"People are really zoning up on us now because of the talent of our bigs," O'Neill said. 'That, and the fact that we're shooting 28 percent from three.

"That makes it harder on our bigs."

O'Neill expects his team to overpower UCLA in the post. But he also stressed that Ben Howland's Bruins have plenty of talent on their roster.

UCLA (7-9, 1-2) just hasn't utilized it all yet, he said. O'Neill still expects the Bruins to be an improved team next season — and perhaps even sooner.

"They've got a lot of talent — per se — on their team," O'Neill said. "But a lot of it's young talent.

"That's sometimes a difficult obstacle for teams to overcome, but I think as the season goes on they'll get a lot better."

In falling to the Bay Area schools, the Trojans' offensive numbers were just about average. But defensively, well — ask Dwight Lewis:

"We just didn't play any defense," he said Thursday. "That's how we lost."

Now, there's a bit more on the line for both schools Saturday. There's some sentiment among the Trojans that USC's performance against rival UCLA will be one of the primary determinants of their success this year — especially given the lack of a postseason. UCLA, still holding out hope for a tournament appearance in March, needs the victory for its tournament resume.

"The bottom line is: we should prepare for this game like any other game," O'Neill said. "But, hey — we know it's a rivalry game."

We'll have more on the blog in advance of Saturday's 4:30 p.m. start.

Notes: Forward Kasey Cunningham, who tore his left ACL and medial meniscus in November, had successful surgery this week. This is the third serious knee injury he's had during his basketball career. He's currently walking with a brace on his right knee...Guard Jio Fontan, who transferred from Fordham and enrolled at USC this Monday, reported to practice this week 15 pounds over his goal weight. He said the main reason for it was an inability to access gym facilities since he decided to transfer just before Christmas — and the holiday season. Fontan, who's been in Los Angeles for less than a week, called the USC campus a "whole other city to get used to itself," but said he was quickly acclimating himself to the L.A. lifestyle.