April 22, 2021

DCTRS

Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

Help is needed to make L.A. Pac-12 title town for UCLA or USC

UCLA was surging toward a Pac-12 title, its fate belonging to nobody else, its destiny unfurling promisingly ahead.

Then came the losses, the doubts, the worries.

USC was surging toward a Pac-12 title, its fate belonging to nobody else, its destiny unfurling promisingly ahead.

Then came the losses, the doubts, the worries.

A torrent of torment, elation followed by heartache, has deposited the Bruins and the Trojans in the same spot on the final day of the regular season. The crosstown rivals will meet at Pauley Pavilion on Saturday afternoon no longer controlling their destinies after slipping in the standings.

After withering against Oregon on Wednesday, UCLA (17-7 overall, 13-5 Pac-12) enters the game with one more conference loss than Oregon (18-5, 13-4) and one fewer conference win than USC (20-6, 14-5).

The Bruins’ meltdown might relegate what once loomed as a colossal showdown into a consolation game. The winner will be assured of finishing no worse than second in the Pac-12, while needing some help to overtake the conference-leading Ducks. Oregon State could provide it Sunday with a win over Oregon, opening the back door to a regular-season championship for either the Trojans or the Bruins.

Just a week ago, UCLA appeared ready to stitch “2020-21” onto one of its time-worn championship banners. USC’s unexpected loss to Utah momentarily had opened a one-game lead for the Bruins over the Trojans and a 1½ game-advantage over Oregon.

A title beckoned, a narrow lead over Colorado with less than seven minutes left sparking visions of coach Mick Cronin winning the conference in only his second season despite a roster rife with complementary players. The final minutes revealed the cracks in that roster, the lack of NBA-ready talent and veteran leadership contributing to a crumble of a finish.

After losing what might have been their best player before the season started when five-star point guard Daishen Nix picked the G League over a season in Westwood, the Bruins suffered two more crushing departures. Senior guard Chris Smith was lost to a season-ending knee injury on the final day of December, and junior forward Jalen Hill left the team in early February for personal reasons, his return in doubt.

Those absences forced the remaining players to compensate in uncomfortable ways. Point guard Tyger Campbell plays all but a handful of minutes every game. Jaime Jaquez Jr. defends power forwards as an undersized 6-foot-6 counterpart because the Bruins have no more attractive options. Riley often has slogged his way through foul trouble while trying to provide the rim protection Hill once supplied.

UCLA guard Tyger Campbell, left, shoots over USC forward Max Agbonkpolo during the Trojans’ win on Feb. 6.

(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

In an oddity for a Cronin team, the Bruins are better on offense than defense. But a lack of reliable scoring options and crunch-time composure has doomed them against the conference’s top teams. Johnny Juzang, the team’s leading scorer, managed only six points while making three of 12 shots against Oregon.

UCLA also couldn’t make easy passes without turning the ball over or get any stops over the final 10 minutes, vaulting the Ducks into first place.

“Games like this send a message to me about where we’re at versus where I want to be,” Cronin said afterward. “So it exposes your weaknesses, tells you what you have to practice and as a coach it tells you where you’re at from a personnel standpoint, so to me that’s the bright side.”

Across town, USC was on a roll through January and half of February, winning 13 of 14 games in dominant fashion, its average margin of victory nearly 11 points. Then the perimeter shooting that surrounded star freshman Evan Mobley dried up. Tahj Eaddy went into a mini-slump, Drew Peterson struggled with his touch and even Mobley began to drift toward the end of what’s expected to be his only college season.

In his last four games, the probable top-three NBA draft pick has scored 10, 11, 13 and 11 points against defenses that have swarmed him every time he touches the ball. The Trojans’ inside-out approach was turned upside-down when their outside shots led to one clank after another.

A home loss to Arizona appeared to be an anomaly when USC rebounded to trounce Oregon, but flat losses to Colorado and Utah on the road showed that deeper issues needed to be resolved.

“We were literally a shell of our team,” Trojans coach Andy Enfield said of the second-half effort against Utah. “Our energy level was just, it was tough to watch.”

USC got back to playing suffocating defense during a 79-42 beatdown of Stanford on Wednesday, a lively showing that it will need to replicate against UCLA on a court where the Bruins have won 18 consecutive games going back to last season.

Should everything go their way over the weekend, the Trojans would capture their first conference regular-season title since they shared it with Washington for the 1984-85 season. Their last outright title came in 1960-61. UCLA doesn’t have to go back nearly as far, its last title coming in 2012-13, coach Ben Howland’s final season.

Once careening toward the championship, the Trojans and Bruins now need some help to get there, their fate belonging to somebody else.

Times staff writer Ryan Kartje contributed to this report.

UCLA-USC SATURDAY

When: 1 p.m.

Where: Pauley Pavilion.

On the air: TV: Channel 2, Radio: 570, 790.

Update: UCLA will honor Chris Smith during its senior day festivities as part of what is expected to be his last appearance inside Pauley Pavilion before going on to professional basketball. USC has won three games in a row in the rivalry and is trying to secure its first four-game winning streak since January 2016 through January 2017. The Trojans are 17-0 this season when they have had at least three players score in double figures.