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And So Rivalry Week Begins

Well, after a weekend sweep of the northern California schools, the USC hoops team has begun preparation for its crosstown rivalry showdown with UCLA next Sunday at Galen Center. And this time around, it is quite evident that the Trojans are the team to beat. If this year is any indication, the landscape in the Los Angeles college basketball scene is starting to drastically change as the Bruins Ben's Brats have been struggling to post "Ws" in the wins column ever since opening night.

Presently, the Bruins hold a dismal 11-12 record that includes losses to Cal State Fullerton, Portland, Long Beach State, and Stanford. In the prior matchup against USC, they embarrassed the 4 letters (I'm glad they're familiar with the concept of the alphabet) in a 21-point loss to the Trojans. Yes, this program is apparently the king of LA college basketball?

Yet, even in the midst of their "down year," the ‘folks across town have been more than eager to remind Trojan fans that USC is ineligible for the postseason due to self-imposed sanctions. While that may be the case, it's important to remember that the remaining games of the 2010 season are an opportunity to lay the foundation for the coming decade. And by using the past few months as evidence, it has become quite clear that both the USC and UCLA programs are headed in entirely opposite directions.

The Trojans, despite losing Tim Floyd and half their players to the NBA in addition to being banned from the postseason, have surpassed all expectations and appear to be a team on a rise. First year head coach Kevin O'Neill has gotten the most out of inexperienced players such as Marcus Johnson and Nikola Vucevic.

Johnson, despite never averaging more than 16.7 minutes per game, has become one of the team's most consistent offensive threats as seen by his 22-point outburst against Washington and 10 points/game scoring average. Vucevic, who did not receive significant minutes during his freshman season under Floyd, has blossomed as a sophomore by averaging a near double-double (11.8 PPG and 9.8 RPG) per outing.

O'Neill's ability to get the most of a group of players that was expected to finish 9th in the conference is yet another indication as why the former Arizona coach is the leading candidate for Pac-10 coach of the year. Turning a nice core of players into a good, efficient team is a reflection of a great coaching job, and O'Neill work is testament to that. But his achievements are not limited to what he's done with the current group of players. Even with a rather successful 14-9 overall record, the Trojans appear poised for greater improvement in the coming years as O'Neill has gotten a head start on the recruiting trail:

Recruiting has gone better than expected with the addition of Fordham transfer Jio Fontan (eligible in December 2010) as the centerpiece and a 2010 class led by point guard Maurice Jones and guard Bryce Jones. All three could start next season, giving the Trojans a new-look perimeter.

"We've recruited well," O'Neill said. "I'm moving forward in a positive manner. But I never realized how tough it would be to deal with an investigation. I'm ecstatic about the group coming in, to have Jio Fontan here. We're going to be young next year. But the bottom line is that we can't do anything about it and we can't complain."

In a college basketball world which sees a lot of player turnover due to the NBA's infamous one-and-done rule, recruiting is the lifeblood of programs. It's the lone way to survive. With so many players leaving school after just one or two years, it is essential for coaches to find suitable replacements. And by glancing at various recruiting services, ESPNU ranks USC's incoming class in the top 25, it appears as if the Trojans have a promising future. Historically, O'Neill has proven to be a sharp mind when it comes to recruiting and talent evaluation so the fact that he's assembling a nice group of prospects for the coming years shouldn't come as a major surprise.

But while ‘SC is certainly in a comfortable position; the program across town appears to be skating on thin ice. While Bruin fans can be critical of ‘SC as long as they want (it's them who look silly in the end), it's their own team that has plenty of problems to solve.

Even with Ben Howland at the helm, who has been described as the second coming of John Wooden by Westwood denizens after leading UCLA to three straight final fours, suddenly appears human. In fact, it looks as if he's overseeing a train wreck. And to be perfectly honest, it's quite easy to understand how Howland has begun running a program he once built up into the ground - through recruiting. Any ‘ol Bruin will tell you that:

Our problems come down to two indisputable facts: We have unaccountably recruited several inadequate players in the last few years. And those few players we have recruited who have great potential, almost always vacate the program after one or two years. And it doesn't take a mathematician to figure out that you absolutely cannot have an elite program with this formula. It is like the algebra problems where the reservoir is being filled with water from one hose, while it is being drained by another hose which is more powerful and faster. We recruit some players; some of them are no good; the ones who are good take off; and we have to immediately recruit some more of them. And if we should start to become unable to recruit many top players--and I think that this is going to become a real possibility--well, you can pretty easily predict the ultimate outcome.

We haven't gotten to that stage yet, but I am not at all optimistic that we are going to be able to recruit well in the next class. We've got a few players for next year. Smith is definitely a strong recruit, and Lamb is probably pretty good. And then we have a JC player who won't be here long, but who might help. Other than that, we are apparently going after Europeans (shudder), more JCs (hard to imagine it has come to that), and undersized sleeper players (smacks of desperation). Why should anyone just blithely imagine that this is going to get better next year or the year after that?

Not only has Howland brought in a vanilla group of athletes, but the character of Ben's Brats is certainly rather questionable as well. Google the words "Nikola Dragovic" and the suggested searches primarily include: "Nikola Dragovic arrested," "Nikola Dragovic assault," and "Nikola Dragovic suspended." That is due to the fact that the senior forward was arrested on suspicion of felony battery in November. It's rather surprising, because any knowledgeable sports fan will tell you that USC is the only athletic program in Southern California that has had players get in trouble with the law.

In addition to the legal troubles, the Brats just don't appear interested in playing team ball at all. They don't hustle. They don't play aggressively on the defensive end. They're not interested in moving on offense. Each player, despite lacking pro-potential and the talent of former UCLA starters, has his own agenda. Whether legitimate or not, most players on the roster are not buying into Howland's message and philosophy. Just listen to starting point guard Malcolm Lee:

"Feel like a caged pitbull that been on a chain for 2 years."

Bad grammar aside, Lee's comments reflect the general attitude of this current team. They aren't interested in buying into Howland's system at all. Each player is merely interested in playing his own game and meeting his own individual goals. It's a sharp contrast between the coach-player relationship in Westwood and the coach-player relationship at USC. The Trojans' team-oriented style of play is a reflection of the positive influence O'Neill continues to have on his players. You just can't say the same thing about Howland. The varying levels of coexistence is just another indication as to why the Trojans' future is bright, while Ben's Brats appear destined to play-second fiddle to ‘SC in the coming years.