USC: Josh Smith

First, first look: UCLA

August, 3, 2011
8/03/11
5:49
PM PT
As the weeks counted down until USC football fall camp, we offered up an early first look at the 12 scheduled opponents for the 2011 season, in chronological order. We began back in May with Minnesota, Utah, Syracuse and Arizona State, continued the next three weeks with Arizona, Cal and Notre Dame and added Stanford, Colorado, Washington and Oregon recently. We now present UCLA, who the Trojans will play at home in their season finale on Nov. 26:

That's it for this week. Our final first look, at UCLA, comes next Wednesday, the day before 2011 fall camp kicks off for the Trojans.

History: There's a common belief that USC has faced UCLA more than any other school in the conference or country, but that's actually not true -- the Trojans have faced Cal, Stanford and Washington more than they've matched up against the Bruins.

What is true, though, is that the Bruins have had more success against the Trojans than any other Pac-12 school, historically. In 80 all-time matchups, UCLA has a .350 winning percentage, good enough for best in the conference against USC.

Of late, the Bruins have struggled. They've won just one of the last dozen games between the schools, a stretch in which they've been outscored 384-176. Last year's game at the Rose Bowl, a 28-14 final, wasn't all that lopsided, but, until UCLA scored with less than a minute to go in the game, it was going to be the fourth straight time the Bruins failed to put up more than one score against the Trojans.

USC hasn't lost at the Coliseum to UCLA since 1997.

Offense: The top player for the Bruins on this side of the ball is running back Johnathan Franklin, a local kid from L.A. Dorsey who ran for over 1100 yards in 2010. He was UCLA's representative at Pac-12 media day last week and is likely going to be the most recognizable Bruin throughout the season.

Surrounding him are receivers Nelson Rosario, Randall Carroll, Taylor Embree and Ricky Marvray, fullback Anthony Barr and tight end Cory Harkey and Joseph Fauria -- plus a potential-filled offensive line that includes senior center Kai Maiava and sixth-year senior Sean Sheller, who could play either guard or tackle. Junior Jeff Baca is expected to miss the early part of the season while recovering from a broken ankle he suffered in spring ball.

Quarterback is still a question mark, with Kevin Prince and Richard Brehaut set to compete against each other in fall camp for the spot. Both players are capable starters, but Prince is known to be the more dedicated player -- which means he's probably the favorite to win the job. Brehaut played organized baseball this summer. It's also worth noting that Prince is what's commonly known as injury-prone. By the time Thanksgiving weekend comes around, there's a significant chance he could be out, with Brehaut or even freshman Brett Hundley replacing him.

Former San Francisco 49ers' offensive coordinator Mike Johnson will be in his first season working with the Bruin offense.

Defense: Safety Tony Dye is talented and has been productive in the past, as has Sean Westgate, a former special-teams standout who made the successful transition to outside linebacker last season. Defensive end Datone Jones is the top lineman, with sophomore Cassius Marsh a nice prospect at tackle.

Junior cornerbacks Aaron Hester and Sheldon Price each had some success starting in 2010. Middle linebacker Patrick Larimore was impressive in the first half of last season before he got hurt, but he's expected to make a full recovery this year and return to lining up the defensive unit. The other projected starting linebacker, Glenn Love, is a converted safety. It'll be interesting to see how sophomore Dietrich Riley performs at safety across from Dye. He made a Signing Day decision to pick UCLA over USC and has been vocal in supporting his decision since.

Defensive coordinator Joe Tresey spent last season in the United Football League after a combined three years at Cincinnati and South Florida. He's known for an aggressive, turnover-inducing style.

Special teams/special circumstances: 19-year-old Kip Smith, a Colorado native who was rated the No. 1 kicker in the 2010 class by some recruiting services, takes over for the departed Kai Forbath, who recently signed as an undrafted free agent with the Dallas Cowboys.

Redshirt junior Jeff Locke missed spring practice while recovering from hip surgery but is again expected to challenge for the Ray Guy award in 2011, as he has in each of the past two seasons. At returner, Embree was sixth in the conference in punt-return average and Colorado transfer Josh Smith was eighth in kick-return average.

Both players are expected to resume their roles.

That concludes our 12-part series. USC fall camp coverage begins tomorrow.

USC-UCLA: Second time through the Pac-10

February, 2, 2011
2/02/11
6:00
PM PT
It's national signing day, so we'll keep it quick. Here are three things to pay attention to that could go a long way toward deciding the winner of tonight's 8 p.m. USC-UCLA game:

1. Can the Trojans keep up with the Bruins' adjustments?

Tonight will mark the start of the second time through the Pac-10 for USC. With that comes an interesting aspect of gameplay that is absent from the first nine games of the season: fixing one's mistakes by watching oneself on film against the upcoming opponent.

Coach Kevin O'Neill said it's the best time -- and only time, really -- to get players to watch film of the opponent. So USC watched a good portion of film from its game last month and got a few new wrinkles to add to its gameplan, O'Neill said.

And the Trojans know this is the most important time to get it going, with only nine games remaining.

“This would be a great time to get started," forward Nikola Vucevic said Tuesday. "It’s the first game of the second part of the conference season and it’s at their place, a rivalry game, so if we come out and win that game I think it’ll help us build on it.”

“They’re gonna bring us their best game," reserve guard Donte Smith said. "We know that. They’re tired of losing to us. And they’re playing good right now, too.”

2. UCLA is 5-1 since losing to USC. USC is 2-4 since beating UCLA. Does that mean anything?

It could, or it couldn't -- depending on how USC treats it.

“If you want to do it in the media talk, we’re two teams headed in opposite directions the last six games, but that doesn’t matter," O'Neill said earlier this week. " Every game’s a new game."

It's a new game, for sure. A new game with big implications.

“They have a chance to cement an NCAA tournament bid over the next couple weeks," O'Neill said. "We’re trying to fight our way back into that picture. Whether we belong in that picture or not is debatable either way, but we’d like to hope we have an opportunity to do that.”

3. Who will win?

A win for USC would mean the Trojans top UCLA five consecutive times for the first time since 1943.

We're convinced the Trojans match up well enough against the Bruins -- especially at the forward spots with Nikola Vucevic and Alex Stepheson vs. Josh Smith and Reeves Nelson. USC is better suited than most other teams to play UCLA.

With that, we'll give USC a solid 10-point advantage and predict a win.

Revisiting USC's win over UCLA

January, 10, 2011
1/10/11
12:47
PM PT


Notes from Sunday's USC-UCLA game worth revisiting as the Trojans prep to play the Oregon schools later this week:
  • As I mention in my postgame video report, USC's Nikola Vucevic was key to the victory, but his performance wasn't mentioned by Trojans coach Kevin O'Neill in his postgame news conference. O'Neill complimented forward Alex Stepheson on his 13-point, 16-rebound day, Bryce Jones for a great stint off the bench and Maurice Jones, Marcus Simmons, Jio Fontan and Donte Smith for solid defensive performances, but didn't mention Vucevic, who finished with a game-high 20 points in 34 minutes.
  • The consensus on UCLA's Josh Smith? He's big, and he's good. Listed at 6-foot-10 and 305 pounds but appearing significantly heftier than that, the freshman was able to pretty much do what he wanted to USC in the low post when he got the ball, but he didn't get the ball very often. In 22 minutes he took only six shots, making four of them. He was in foul trouble for essentially the entire game, but the Bruins often seemed to look away from him in the post even when he was in the game. Lazeric Jones and Malcolm Lee doubled Smith's shot attempts but made just one-quarter of what he did from the field. Stepheson and Simmons said Smith was the biggest player they had ever played against.
  • Speaking of Simmons, the senior swingman admitted to feeling a little too hyped-up early as a result of the boisterous crowd. The student section was filled an hour before the game, when the Trojans began to warm up on the court at the Galen Center. "I was surprised to see it was a packed house," Simmons said. The capacity crowd of 10,258 was almost double USC's previous high in home attendance this season -- 5,584 against Washington. Of course the Trojans also played in front of crowds of 16,000 and 19,000 in consecutive games at Kansas and Tennessee.
  • A telling quote from O'Neill examining Howland and the Bruins' long-term success: "No matter where they are, UCLA is the benchmark to measure yourself against. When you talk about USC and UCLA, we compete against them in everything, so it was a big win for us. When you beat them, you beat tradition. They'll get better. They're really well-coached." O'Neill may be right, but the Trojans now have a significant advantage on UCLA as far as postseason candidacy is concerned this season. The teams have similar records -- 10-6 for USC, 9-6 for UCLA -- but the Trojans have, for the most part, beat the better teams. Now USC must try to take this momentum on the road, where it will open Oregon's new Matthew Knight Arena on national television at 8 p.m Thursday and then face Oregon State on Saturday. Both Oregon schools got swept by the Washington schools last weekend, so they'll have a lot to prove.

We'll have more in advance of Thursday's game, including a practice report Wednesday and a preview of the game Thursday.

Basketball: USC 63, UCLA 52

January, 9, 2011
1/09/11
11:48
PM PT
LOS ANGELES -- That's three in a row now for second-year USC coach Kevin O'Neill, who hasn't lost to crosstown rival UCLA as the Trojans' coach.

Yes, he knows that means a lot to Trojan fans. No, he's not thinking about it too much.

"I guess that's important around here," O'Neill said after his team beat the Bruins, 63-52, before a sellout crowd at the Galen Center in a solid all-around game befitting an O'Neill-coached team. "I feel very fortunate we've been able to beat these guys four straight times and three since I've been here.

"It won't go on forever."

He's right, of course. But if his team puts up a few more consistent performances like they did Sunday, he could have the area buzzing because of the Trojans' NCAA Tournament candidacy -- not a rivalry win. USC (10-6, 2-1 in Pac-10) played defense worthy of a tournament appearance against the Bruins, especially in the second half -- when the Trojans forced UCLA into 26 percent shooting.

Even crafty forward Reeves Nelson, who had a game-high 12 points entering halftime, was ineffective in the second half as UCLA converted only seven shots from the field and six free throws in a 22-point half. USC defensive stopper Marcus Simmons neutralized UCLA's Tyler Honeycutt, forcing Honeycutt into seven turnovers and 3-of-10 shooting. Mammoth-sized center Josh Smith was effective in spurts but played only 22 minutes due to foul trouble. And starting guards Malcolm Lee and Lazeric Jones combined to shoot 1-of-12 from the field.

The Trojans got 20 points from leading scorer Nikola Vucevic, 10 from guard Jio Fontan and a key nine from Maurice Jones, who added four steals and three assists in 37 minutes.

The packed Galen Center crowd, especially, made a difference in the second half when the Trojans overcome a 30-28 halftime deficit to take a 45-37 lead less than six minutes into the half -- a switch that held through the rest of the game. The student section was full, with classes starting back up Monday, and multiple players referenced feeling more energy in the arena than they could remember at USC.

"I think we definitely [fed off the crowd]," Fontan said. "I think this was the first time that we had a packed crowd that was with us completely, and it wasn't close."

"Tonight we gave them a lot to cheer for and having them behind us kinda led us to the win."

Player of the game: Stepheson finished with 13 points and a game-high 16 rebounds in a game-high 38 minutes. He made 5-of-10 shots and also recorded a steal in his first fully-healthy game this season.

He fractured his left hand in the season opener against UC Irvine and then played the next 14 games with a brace on that hand -- clearly affected by the injury but still playing, as O'Neill noted multiple times. But his performance was big Sunday, and the senior forward played big in the post too.

"Alex Stepheson's energy on the boards was key for us," O'Neill said. "His effort was tremendous."

UCLA coach Ben Howland said the Bruins had no answer for Stepheson on the boards whether they used Smith, Nelson or reserve forward Brendan Lane. He kept picking up rebounds.

"Stepheson really did a nice job in the middle and we didn't control him," Howland said. "He's really playing some good ball."

Stat of the game: The Trojans forced the Bruins into 17 turnovers and limited themselves to only 11. The points-off-turnover stat was also telling: 20 for USC, four for UCLA.

Said O'Neill: "The key for us: We only turned it over 11 times. We gave ourselves a chance every time down."

Quote of the game: "The win means everything to us. Being from L.A., I know the rivalry. It's bragging rights. The whole city is watching." -- Stepheson

Just as it is in football, the USC-UCLA game is important to the players because of its long-term implications. Win and you can toss in your friends and neighbors' faces for a month. Lose and -- well, you get the picture.

Notes: Among the football players in attendance: running back Dillon Baxter, linebacker Devon Kennard and receiver Robert Woods. Plenty more helped to fill up the Galen Center as well...USC had never before won a game at Galen Center in front of a sellout crowd of 10,258. The Trojans were 0-3 in those games, two of which were against the Bruins, entering Sunday...This was the Trojans' first win when trailing at the half and UCLA's first loss when ahead at the half...Said Howland of Vucevic: "I look at mock drafts and I just don't understand why Vucevic isn't up there. He does everything. Shoots well, rebounds well and has a real presence for them out there."

***

Stepheson talked after the game about UCLA's Smith, his own performance in the low block and the importance of grabbing a home win before heading off to the Oregon schools next week:

USC-UCLA: The crosstown rivalry

January, 9, 2011
1/09/11
11:17
AM PT
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.”

Basketball: USC preps for UCLA

January, 7, 2011
1/07/11
6:49
AM PT
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.

(Read full post)

Basketball: Pac-10 Media Day thoughts

October, 28, 2010
10/28/10
9:49
PM PT
Notes and quotes from Thursday's Pac-10 Media Day, held at the Nokia Theatre at L.A. Live:
  • USC coach Kevin O'Neill and forward Nikola Vucevic represented the Trojans on Thursday just down the road from the USC campus. Remarkably, O'Neill walked to the event. He bought a condo over the summer just two blocks away from L.A. Live and saw no need to commute to USC and back in the early morning, although the Trojans did practice at 3:30 at the Galen Center.
  • O'Neill chose three seniors -- guards Marcus Simmons and Donte Smith -- plus forward Alex Stepheson, to be his team captains this season. Asked why he chose Smith over more natural leader Jio Fontan, O'Neill said he thought it would be unfair to Fontan to force on him leadership roles as he is forced to sit out the first 10 games of the season after transferring from Fordham. "I think they should be the captains," Vucevic said of the three seniors. "They're the oldest guys on the team, and they are all good leaders."

(Read full post)

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