Rivalry Getting a Face Shift

Times Staff Writers

It rarely happens, so when USC and UCLA shared a flight home this weekend, knowing glances were exchanged, snide comments were made.

The Trojans and Bruins, both coming back from road games in Washington, could have been looking in a mirror on the Alaska Airlines plane -- a pair of rebuilding teams who would be playing each other next in their cross-town rivalry game.

In the previous four seasons, USC fans knew that Sam Clancy would be dominating the paint, that Brandon Granville would be running the point and that David Bluthenthal would be taking three-pointers and grabbing rebounds.

And UCLA followers could count on Jason Kapono scoring, Dan Gadzuric clogging the lane, Matt Barnes playing an all-around game, Billy Knight firing away from beyond the arc and Rico Hines, well, leading sideline cheers by waving a towel and jumping on press row tables to celebrate wins.

All but Kapono are gone now, some in the NBA, others playing internationally and a few continuing their educations. So new blood is coursing through the veins of each program. If the hardwood rivalry has taken on a fresh look, though, and the faces have changed, the story remains the same as they prepare to meet tonight at Pauley Pavilion.

"Last year, we just got a taste of it," Trojan power forward Nick Curtis said of the rivalry. "We're only sophomores, so we've got a couple of years to go but we know it's a big deal.

"All the alumni, all the fans and the coaches, we want to win. We want to win every game, but this is just icing on the cake. This is what you dream about as a kid."

And both teams are littered with kids ... and dreams.

USC (5-4 overall, 1-1 in Pacific 10 Conference play) has started four sophomores in each of its first two league games and UCLA (4-5, 2-0) starts three second-year players.

It's a fact not lost on Kapono.

"They are still wearing the same gold and cardinal, or whatever," the senior said. "It's the same mind-set."

UCLA sophomore forward Dijon Thompson agreed, to a degree.

"It's a little less [of a rivalry] because there was so much turnover," he said. "But it's still a big rivalry, and it is going to get bigger the next couple years. In the future, it could be real big."

Having so many players from both sides with Southland roots accentuates the familiarity -- and the rivalry.

"I have to live in the same town and eat in the same places," Kapono said. "It gives them a chance to trash talk. I've had a couple of rough situations with SC fans. They've come up in my face and wanted to fight me. I walk away."

Consider: USC's Derrick and Errick Craven played at Bishop Montgomery High in Torrance, Curtis at Oxnard High, Jerry Dupree at Moreno Valley's Valley View High and Rory O'Neil at Ridgecrest Burroughs High.

UCLA has Kapono from Artesia High, Thompson from Redondo Union, Cedric Bozeman from Mater Dei, Ryan Hollins from Pasadena Muir, Josiah Johnson from Montclair Prep, and Andre Patterson from Washington Prep.

"We're playing against guys that we've been playing against since high school and now they're at UCLA, so with the rivalry, it's going to be fun," said O'Neil, the Trojans' sophomore center. "Plus, it's UCLA too, the big rivalry. They're one of the teams you look at, growing up, as one of the powerhouses of college basketball, so I'm just excited to get out there."

UCLA's Patterson concurred.

"We're all close," the sophomore forward said. "The Cravens, Dupree, Rory, all those guys.... It's going to be a big game for us. It's a pride game."

Said Errick Craven: "We had rivalries in high school, me and Dijon. Now it's just magnified with UCLA and USC. It's the same approach I had in high school."

Which was?

"We've got to beat them before we talk or say something."

The Bruins' senior class of 2002 had plenty to brag about, having won six of the eight games against the Trojans' seniors.

But with last year's split -- an 81-77 Trojan victory at the Forum followed by a last-second 67-65 Bruin win in Westwood -- this season's USC sophomores are already halfway to their brethren's win total against their rivals.

"That's the reason I came to USC, to become the top team in the area," said Dupree, a junior who is in his second year with the Trojans. "We're trying to become that top team over so-called UCLA."

But not every young player sees a certain changing of the guard, or has a feeling of "it's our time now," as far as the rivalry is concerned.

"Not at all. I mean, the rivalry's going to be there, the history of it, so we're just going to take it as it is," said USC sophomore point guard Derrick Craven. "It doesn't matter who the players on the team are, it's the whole embodiment of the schools to get bragging rights for the city.

"I mean, this year is good for our experience, but next year we're going to be a great team and the year after that. We're a young team and with this rivalry, we're getting more experience under our belt."

And although USC is looking at tonight's game as a chance to right its ship after blowing a 21-point lead at Washington, UCLA hopes to improve on its modest two-game winning streak after starting out 2-5.

Said Errick Craven: "This is our chance to bounce back and play well against our rival. We've got to win games just to make it to the [NCAA] tournament. We lost to teams lower than us and we need to beat some teams that have higher ratings."

The Washington trip, in which UCLA swept the Huskies and Cougars, injected new life into the seemingly moribund Bruins.

"It felt like a brand new team," UCLA junior center T.J. Cummings said. "We are playing [USC] at a perfect time. We're playing well and we need to before going into our big-time L.A. rivalry. We'll be ready for it."

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