Basketball: USC preps for UCLA

A few notes from Thursday's practice as the Trojans prepare to play UCLA on Sunday at the Galen Center:

  • Alex Stepheson's full return from the hand injury that had limited him for the last two months was clearly a big boost for USC, and Stepheson practiced with a new fervor Thursday while being defended by freshman Curtis Washington and transfer center DeWayne Dedmon. The brace-free hand will still need some adjusting-to for Stepheson, but coach Kevin O'Neill said after practice he had never seen Stepheson practice as angry in his three years at USC. And while he did admit to witnessing his team experience a letdown in the final 20 minutes of practice, he said he was pleased with his team's effort three days away from UCLA.

  • Freshman forward Garrett Jackson and senior guard Donte Smith had especially good practices, with Jackson spending a good portion of the session playing the power forward spot while giving Stepheson or Nikola Vucevic breaks and Smith knocking down shot after shot when plays disintegrated. Jackson has done that at times this season but never with much regularity -- he could be an option to get more minutes against UCLA because of the Bruins' interesting forward-center configuration with the undersized Reeves Nelson and the oversized Josh Smith. Put it this way -- one of Stepheson or Vucevic, probably Stepheson, will be giving up 50 pounds or so to Smith in the low block. The other guy will likely be too slow to keep Nelson contained. Enter Jackson, who's probably of a similar height to Nelson and of a slightly smaller build. O'Neill has also praised his defensive acumen in the past.

  • Smith was playing on the second team in practice but was doing a lot of the scoring, just as he has done for much of this season. Averaging 10.1 points per game, Smith will be a key cog for the Trojans against the Bruins, who don't have a bench player putting up five points a game. His 3-point shooting, too, is a big "You can tell he sees himself not just as a sixth man but as a player, just going out there and trying to help every chance he gets," junior guard Jio Fontan said of Smith Thursday.

  • Former USC swingman Marcus Johnson practiced with the team for the duration of the two-hour practice after it was OK'd by the compliance department for him to participate. Johnson, who spent two seasons as a Trojan after transferring from UCONN, spent a stint with a Croatian team late last year but has returned to the U.S. and is staying in Los Angeles. O'Neill said he was a nice addition to practice, even if just for a day, and quipped that he was "not bad for a walk-on."

We'll have more, including a preview taking a look at the similarities between the two squads, in advance of Sunday's game.