LOS ANGELES (AP) — Forget the rivalry. Southern California just wants to win a Pac-12 game. UCLA, having gotten back to .500, wants to stay on track for a shot at the conference title the Bruins were picked to win.
This season hasn’t gone according to plan for either of the crosstown rivals, who meet Sunday night at USC’s Galen Center, just down the street from where the Bruins are playing their home games at the Los Angeles Sports Arena.
The Trojans are winless in their first four Pac-12 games, matching their worst start since 2005. The Bruins stumbled out of the gate in November with consecutive losses to mid-majors Loyola Marymount and Middle Tennessee State, then lost by 16 points to ranked Kansas and Michigan. Their only road win has been against Division II Chaminade at the Maui Invitational.
USC lost star guard Jio Fontan to injury during a summer exhibition tour. UCLA coach Ben Howland suspended and then dismissed standout Reeves Nelson last month for his bad attitude.
The Bruins (9-7) are coming off a home sweep of the Arizona schools that evened their record at 2-2 in league play, and they’ve won seven of their last nine games. They’re led by guard Lazeric Jones, who is averaging 13.2 points, although four other players average more than nine points.
“This is a big game for us,” said David Wear, UCLA’s top rebounder who will be playing in the rivalry for the first time. “I don’t think we’re going to overlook them just because they haven’t won a game in the Pac-12.”
The Trojans (5-12) got swept by Arizona State and Arizona last weekend when poor shooting continued to plague them. They hit a season-low 29 percent against the Wildcats. USC has lost a season-high five straight games and eight of its last nine.
Maurice Jones, who leads the Trojans with 14.3 points a game, has taken over Fontan’s role running the offense. Aaron Fuller, who averages 10.8 points and a team-best 6.2 rebounds, didn’t practice this week after tweaking his right shoulder recently, but will try to play Sunday.
“These guys are going to end up having a lot of success, probably not this year,” third-year USC coach Kevin O’Neill said about his team. “They’re just in roles they can’t handle now. They’re a little overwhelmed.”
The schools split their series last year, with each team winning on its home floor. The Trojans have won four of the last five meetings, but UCLA has dominated the rivalry with a 129-104 all-time record.
“It’s a rivalry game, so we’ve got to come out and play like it’s a rivalry game with energy and force,” USC’s Dewayne Dedmon said.
The Pac-12 is a woeful 6-20 on the road in league play so far, with both LA schools winless in each of their first two road games.
“They’re going to be very difficult on their home floor,” Howland said. “You can throw out all records. It’s all about UCLA playing USC. They’re going to have all their fans there. We’ll get a couple hundred tickets.”
UCLA’s 6-foot-10 frontline trio of Joshua Smith and twin brothers David and Travis Wear rounded into form in the Bruins’ 75-58 win over Arizona State last weekend. Smith had 18 points, Travis Wear scored 16 and David Wear had nine rebounds as the Bruins controlled the inside, with Smith’s teammates feeding him down low for easy baskets.
“I think there frontline is as talented as any frontline in the country except maybe North Carolina,” O’Neill said.
Smith, whose weight has topped 300 pounds during his first two years at UCLA, has improved his conditioning recently.
“Let’s hope he continues to take off from where he was (last weekend),” Howland said. “You see him very inspired.”
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