Sometimes it takes the logic of a Bruin fan to put things into proper perspective. At the start of the first half of USC's 68-64 victory over UCLA on Sunday night, a young boy decked in powdered blue held up a sign directed toward the USC student section that read, "Are you busy this March?". Of course, the sign intended to poke fun at the fact that the Trojans will not be eligible for the postseason due to those now infamous self-imposed sanctions.
However, what makes his sign so ironic is the fact that UCLA isn't exactly headed for an appearance in the Big Dance this March either. At this point in time, the Bruins are 11-13 on the season and are on pace to experience their third losing season since 1948. To make matters worse, Sunday night marked the third consecutive loss that the Bruins have experienced at the hands of the Trojans - the first time in the post-Wooden era. Clearly, things aren't exactly cozy over there in Westwood.
But in the midst of the peril surrounding Ben Howland's program, Kevin O'Neill and the Trojans are enjoying quite a bit of success, as their victory on Sunday night marked the first time since 2004 that USC had swept the Bruins. It wasn't pretty once again, but KO's Crew got it done as a result of pesky defense and forcing turnovers.
Despite being out-rebounded 45-26, the Trojans' defensive pressure forced 20 UCLA turnovers - directly leading to 26 points for USC.
"Give them credit," Howland told the press following the game. "They forced turnovers. We have to learn to take better care of the ball."
But in the midst of 'SC's strong defense effort, the team was able to defeat the Bruins in large part because of an offense that stepped up at all the right times.
Senior guard Dwight Lewis, who would be playing in his final game of the crosstown rivalry, stepped up in a big way with a game-high 23 points in 32 minutes of action. It was the second time this season that the Bruin Killer posted big numbers against UCLA. In the first matchup at Pauley Pavilion, he finished with 24 points. But what was even more remarkable this time around was his offensive efficiency. Lewis went 8-of-13 from the field, including 3-of-6 from three point territory and 4-of-4 from the free-throw line.
For a player, who has been much maligned by Trojan fans for his inconsistency, it was refreshing to see him step up in a big way. With no postseason, it would have been easy for the group of seniors to give up, but Lewis, along with Mike Gerrity and Marcus Johnson, continue to put their best effort forward while proving their detractors wrong.
But as usual, it wasn't a one-man effort on the offensive end. Certainly, Lewis got his points, but the Trojans got big-time efforts from unexpected sources, namely 5'11" reserve guard Donte Smith. Smith, who once started at point guard before Mike Gerrity returned to the court in mid-December, matched his career-high with 12 points while shooting 4-of-7 from the field.
However, this game was more than just Xs and Os. It was about the changing landscape of the college basketball scene in Los Angeles. UCLA, the school with eleven national championships in its illustrious history, looks to be headed toward the bottom of the Pac-10, while the Trojans appear to be closing the gap between the two programs ever so quickly.
No, we are not going to go around parading through Southern California, declaring that the LA basketball monopoly is over, but it is safe to say that these two programs are far more competitive than any point in recent history. In the past eight matchups, the Trojans hold a 4-4 record against the Bruins. In terms of head-to-head matchups, it's been incredibly close and evident of a gap narrowing by the month. It isn't like the football version of the rivalry, where there is a tremendous difference as scene by USC winning ten times since 1999.
Just using recent results, it's clear that the gap is closing. No, the schools aren't on a equal playing field just yet, but the Trojans, under first year coach Kevin O'Neill, are clearly making huge strides. Strides that nobody, myself included, expected to have been made this early.