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USC and UCLA are headed in opposite directions as the regular season winds down

USC and UCLA are headed in opposite directions as the regular season winds down
USC's Jordan McLaughlin, left, guard Julian Jacobs and Chimezie Metu rush to guard UCLA's Aaron Holiday. (Gus Ruelas / Associated Press)

Only twice in the last 54 years has USC made the NCAA men's basketball tournament when UCLA did not.

This year could mark the third time.

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Who would have imagined?

With a 75-63 defeat at Cal on Thursday, UCLA is on the outside looking in. Anything short of winning the Pac-12 tournament and the Bruins will probably experience March Madness at the NIT, if not their dorm rooms.

And to think of how this season started in Westwood.

There were the victories over then-No. 1 Kentucky, then-No. 20 Gonzaga and then-No. 7 Arizona.

Now, the Bruins are 15-13, including 6-9 in the Pac-12.

Viscerally, it's shocking to see John Wooden's program near the bottom of the conference standings.

But in reality, the downturn wasn't entirely unexpected. With Kevon Looney and Norman Powell lost to the NBA draft, this was something of a transitional season for the Bruins, who will welcome a powerhouse recruiting class in the fall that includes five-star prospects Lonzo Ball and forward T.J. Leaf.

Coach Steve Alford has made references to the temporary absence of high-end talent in recent weeks.

"Losing a lot of guys to the league and trying to replace, that's not easy," he said earlier this month. "We know we've got a lot of help coming. So we've got to make sure this year, we're just getting better."

Whatever you might think of Steve Alford the coach, Steve Alford the father should receive high marks based on the conduct of his point-guard son, Bryce.

Bryce Alford had one of his worst games of the season Thursday. He was poked in the eye earlier in the week and was the target of "Daddy's boy" chants from the Berkeley crowd.

UCLA's Bryce Alford in the final minutes of a tough game against California on Thursday.
UCLA's Bryce Alford in the final minutes of a tough game against California on Thursday. (Ben Margot / Associated Press)

But, as Zach Helfand described in the Friday edition of The Times, the younger Alford didn't make any excuses for his performance and shouldered responsibility for his team's failure.

What made this particularly impressive was that Bryce Alford was under no obligation to speak to reporters. Unlike in professional sports, the locker rooms are customarily off-limits to the media in collegiate athletics. The team's sports information director takes two or three players to speak to reporters after the game. Typically, these are the two or three players who had the best games.

On the other side of town, Andy Enfield's reconstruction of once-downtrodden USC has happened sooner than expected.

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The Trojans are one of this city's great entertainment values and not only because of their up-tempo style of play. They have a charismatic in-house disc jockey – DJ Mal-Ski – who hilariously taunts opposing players while they're warming up.

With USC expected to return every significant player on its roster next season, the UCLA-USC basketball rivalry has a chance to develop into an actual rivalry -- provided UCLA does its part.

Don't despair, Lakers fans. The D-Fenders are in second place in the D-League's Pacific Division.

The Golden State Warriors' Santa Cruz-based affiliate is in last.

I suspect that many who tuned into Barcelona's Champions League match against Arsenal this week did so wanting to see the Spanish giants demolish Arsene Wenger's London-based club, if only because a lopsided result would send the always-hysterical English media into overdrive.

It didn't happen. Arsenal was disciplined and managed to not concede a goal until the 71st minute, when Lionel Messi finished a counterattack started by Neymar and Luis Suarez. The final score was a respectable 2-0.

Which raises the question: Will Wenger and Arsenal make a serious attempt to win the two-game, total-goal series?

By committing the number of players forward necessary to erase the two-goal deficit in the return leg, Arsenal will leave itself particularly vulnerable to Barcelona's formidable three-man front line. Under that scenario, Arsenal could very well lose by four or five goals, which could revive conversations about whether Wenger should be replaced as manager.

Arsenal's majority shareholder is Stan Kroenke, the owner of the Rams. One of the most decorated clubs in English soccer, Arsenal has not won a league title since Kroenke became involved with the club in 2007.

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