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Sunday, January 9, 2011
USC-UCLA: The crosstown rivalry

By Pedro Moura

At Jio Fontan's last school, there was no crosstown rival.

There were no other schools in the New York City area Fordham played frequently enough and closely enough to warrant a natural rivalry.

So the school chose its rival based on -- what else? -- its mascot. Fordham's rival is the other school in the Atlantic-10 Conference also represented by a Ram, Rhode Island. Never mind that the schools are three-plus hours apart, share little to nothing in common and don't compete with any more intensity than the other in-conference rivals.

Unless you count the prep New Jersey rivalry of St. Anthony's and St. Patrick's, Fontan has never played in a rivalry game quite like USC-UCLA. But, he says, he's been looking forward to tonight since he signed over a year ago to suit up for USC.

Is tonight's 7:30 game any more important to the Trojans (9-6, 1-1 in Pac-10) than any of their other Pac-10 battles?

“We don’t say that, but we all treat it like that privately,” says Fontan, who is averaging 14.4 points since making his USC debut five games ago.

Coach Kevin O'Neill is very complimentary of UCLA coach Ben Howland's squad. Ask him about Malcolm Lee, the Bruins' talented but inconsistent guard, and he raves about him. Ask him about UCLA center Josh Smith, and the NBA is brought up multiple times in a short period.

Ask O'Neill to pick one player he's most worried about and he says he can't tell you.

But we can speculate. The matchup to watch Sunday night will likely be on the perimeter, where USC defensive stopper Marcus Simmonswill be tasked with the job of defending Bruins' swingman Tyler Honeycutt.

Honeycutt, averaging 14.6 points entering into the game, is a bit different than the typical player Simmons guards.

At 6-foot-8, he's got 2 inches on Simmons and a clear rebounding advantage, but he's also usually the Bruins' second offensive option --  not their first. In the past, Simmons' success has been relative to the importance and quality of the player he's defending -- the better the player, the better he does. It will be interesting to see if he is pumped up to defend Honeycutt, although O'Neill also talked up the Sylmar native this week.

“Marcus has played a lot of good players," O'Neill said after a tense two-hour practice this week. "Honeycutt’s as good as all of them.

"He’s a guy that, when he gets hot, he’s very, very difficult to deal with."

Likewise, Smith won't be easy to deal with in the post. USC senior forward Alex Stepheson will be tasked with that duty. Nikola Vucevic will have to defend a much different player than he's used to in the talented Reeves Nelson.

Listed at 6-foot-8, Nelson's undersized for the post, but he's feisty. He didn't have much success against the Trojans a season ago, though, putting up a combined 19 points in two UCLA losses. This year, he's the Bruins leading scorer. His best skill -- aside from that very Howland-esque craftiness coaches love -- is his ability to take good shots. Nelson doesn't miss often. If he's able to shoot the ball a good deal against Vucevic or freshman forward Garrett Jackson, who may guard him off the bench, USC could be in trouble.

The Bruins (9-5, 1-1) will be forced to deal with a healthy Stepheson, a confident Vucevic and -- if practice performance means anything -- a scorching-hot Donte Smithoff the bench. Fontan and Maurice Jonesare also getting more comfortable working in tandem in the backcourt as Fontan adjusts to playing off the ball for the first time in years.

But both teams will be well-rested, having had more than a week to prepare for this game, and both teams realize what's at stake tonight.

“It’s big," Fontan says of the game. "This rivalry’s big -- bigger than us. It’s a university-type thing.”