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With apologies to all of the other Southland programs, tomorrow’s showdown between UCLA and USC is to determine who is the top dog in our local college basketball scene. More importantly, the winner will maintain their hold on first place in the Pac-10, which is shaping up to be the toughest conference in the country.

As all of the football fans know, you can throw out records and tradition when it comes to rivalry games because they don’t matter – you can always count on a hell of a fight because of the emotion and pride that the players carry into the game. Last year, the Trojans upset the Bruins late in the season, which provided the motivation and focus for UCLA to win its next 12 en route to the NCAA championship game. But this time around, there is something tangible at stake, with the surprising Trojans far exceeding expectations and matching the Bruins on top of the conference standings. Accordingly, the Galen Center is sold out for the first time ever in anticipation of this matchup, though it is unclear whether it will be USC that actually has the homecourt advantage.

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UCLA has continued where it left off last year, having been the top dog for all of college basketball for a good portion of this season at number one in the polls. The Bruins reeled off 14 straight wins to start off the year before stumbling at Mac Court in Oregon last Saturday. Still, they enter tomorrow’s game ranked third in the country featuring a deep and talented roster. Now in his fifth season, coach Ben Howland has done the same work with the Bruins as he has at his last stops at Northern Arizona and Pitt, turning around a floundering program and building into a winner. The next step is the final one, making a return to the title game but this time raising the 12th championship banner in Pauley.

This year's Bruins are a fascinating combination of toughness and athleticism. The team is not extraordinarily big upfront, but play tremendous man-to-man defense and aggressively attack the glass, as is the trademark with Howland teams. However, with the speedy Darren Collison having replaced star point guard Jordan Farmar (Lakers) in the starting lineup, the team plays more up-tempo than last season. In comparison to other top teams around the country, UCLA does not possess a dominant superstar, though leading scorer Arron Afflalo was a preseason All-American this year. Instead, the Bruins rely on a strong team concept with their dynamic backcourt of Collison and Afflalo, second-leading scorer Josh Shipp, do-everything forward Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, and the tough-as-nails Lorenzo Mata holding down the paint.

USC has been a pleasant surprise after a tragic offseason in which starting point guard Ryan Francis was shot and killed, with upsets over ranked opponents Wichita St., Washington, and Oregon and a sparkling 13-4 record. When coach Tim Floyd took the job two years ago, many expected him to turnaround the team as he had at prior schools like New Orleans and Iowa St. Few expected the turnaround to be so sudden, particularly after this offseason, which also included first-team Pac-10 guard Gabe Pruitt being ruled academically ineligible for the first 11 games.

The Trojans are extremely fast and athletic in the backcourt, playing a fluid open-court style that has enabled their skilled guards to create opportunities for themselves. First-team Pac-10 guard Gabe Young is the team's leading scorer and is a tough cover with his combination of shooting range and ability to penetrate. Lodrick Stewart is also an excellent 3-point shooter. Freshman forward Taj Gibson has been a huge unexpected force, third in the conference in rebounding and an emerging low post threat. This has helped fill what seemed to be a glaring deficiency at the beginning of the season. The Trojans are still beset by sloppy execution on the offensive end at times, leading to a conference-worst turnover margin, but the defense has been outstanding, as USC is the third in the country in field goal percentage allowed.

A big loss for the Bruins will be Shipp, who is sidelined with a hamstring injury. The key to the game will be whether or not USC can withstand UCLA's defensive pressure and protect the basketball: the Bruins thrive off of fast-break opportunities from turnovers to break open close games. UCLA loves to double team the low post, so Gibson will need to identify his many skilled shooters. The Trojans' team speed gave the Bruins problems in their win last year, so it will be interesting to see if the Bruins can tighten up their on-ball defense and restrict drive and dish opportunities, especially with the UCLA bench needing to play more minutes in Shipp's absence. All in all, expect an intense, entertaining contest between two strong teams that should be battling at the top of the Pac-10 all season.

UCLA at USC
Saturday, 11:30 am
Galen Center
TV: PRIME

AP photos by Mark Avery and Don Ryan