UCLA

UCLA and USC players and coaches are keeping a low profile about Thursday's basketball matchup

Listen to players and coaches from UCLA and USC and you wouldn't think Thursday night's Pac-12 Conference basketball rivalry game at the Galen Center was special at all.

Words have been chosen carefully. The sides have been cordial, if bland.

"Just another game on the Pac-12 schedule," USC Coach Andy Enfield said.

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Said USC point guard Jordan McLaughlin: "They're a good team. We're a good team."

Said UCLA point guard Bryce Alford: "It's just a big Pac-12 game."

It would be understandable if tensions were boiling. For the first time in a long time, USC is the favorite against UCLA, having defeated the Bruins by 14 points three weeks ago.

Each team needs to win for different reasons. USC (17-5, 6-3 in Pac-12 play) is making a push for first place in the conference. UCLA (13-9, 4-5) is trying to stay on the right side of the NCAA tournament bubble.

But both sides have been respectful. Ever since 2013, when Enfield was quoted by Men's Journal magazine saying of UCLA Coach Steve Alford, "I've made it to one Sweet Sixteen in two years, and he's made it to one Sweet Sixteen in 18 years," he has said little about the rivalry.

Enfield says he has repeatedly said that UCLA is just another game because "that's what we believe."

"We're trying to get our program to a certain level, and UCLA historically has been the highest level for decades," Enfield said. "So it's nice to have one win against them this year, but we're looking at it more of a bigger perspective within the season."

Steve Alford also downplayed the outcome of the first game, saying, "I can tell you, the Washington loss probably affected me even more negatively than the SC loss did."

Both coaches began their Pac-12 tenures at the same time. Alford and UCLA won the first five games in the series.

In January, USC overwhelmed UCLA with athleticism. Freshman Chimezie Metu had 21 points and eight rebounds.

USC's three starting guards also excelled. Katin Reinhardt shut down Bryce Alford, UCLA's leading scorer. McLaughlin scored 23 points. And Julian Jacobs has been playing so well, he was chosen as a Jerry West Award finalist — for shooting guard of the season — even though he's a point guard.

"I hope it doesn't get to his head and he starts shooting more," Enfield said, jokingly.

Since the loss to USC, UCLA has changed its starting lineup to add athleticism on defense. Last week, against Washington State, the more nimble Jonah Bolden replaced Tony Parker at forward. UCLA won by 33 points.

Steve Alford noted that UCLA hasn't defeated any of the three most athletic teams it has faced: Washington, Oregon and USC. He wouldn't commit to starting Bolden against the Trojans, but said "I don't see any changes."

Don MacLean, the former Bruin who is an analyst for the Pac-12 Networks, said the new lineup made UCLA more athletic and stronger defensively.

"I'm kind of surprised they didn't try it earlier than this," MacLean said.

UCLA hasn't lost both games to USC in a season since 2010. So while both teams have downplayed the matchup, it has generated a buzz at USC, where basketball has been an afterthought in recent years.

Reinhardt said two of his professors wished him luck in Thursday's game — good wishes usually reserved for members of the football team.

Then Reinhardt made an admission: this game feels bigger than normal.

"Everybody's talking about it," Reinhardt said.

UCLA VS. USC

When: 7:30.

Where: Galen Center.

On the air: TV: Pac-12 Networks; Radio: 570, 690.

Update: Last season at this time, the Trojans were seven games out of first place in the Pac-12 Conference. USC is 17-5, 6-3 in Pac-12 play, which has the Trojans one game behind conference leader Oregon. USC's turnaround is the fifth-largest in the nation. The Bruins (13-9, 4-5) need a strong February, as they did last year, to secure a spot in the NCAA tournament. USC is 13-0 at home this season, tying a record set in 1943. The Trojans defeated the Bruins at Pauley Pavilion by 14 points last month.

Follow Zach Helfand on Twitter @zhelfand

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on February 04, 2016, in the Sports section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Bruins and Trojans play down matchup - Players and coaches are keeping a low profile, but each team needs a win tonight." — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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