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USC, UCLA to meet in men's basketball Wednesday and this time it has meaning

USC, UCLA to meet in men's basketball Wednesday and this time it has meaning
USC guard Jordan McLaughlin drives to the lane between a host of UCLA defenders on Jan. 14, 2015. (Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times)

Among USC's basketball players, there is no consensus. Asked what the team's low point was last season, there was no lack of candidates.

How to choose among 20 losses?

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Elijah Stewart said his came at Arizona State.

"We really wanted that one," he said.

Then he reconsidered: "Oh, I forgot about Cal, too!"

Jordan McLaughlin: "Sheesh, it was all of them. The Colorado one? That one went to, like, three overtimes."

Julian Jacobs: "The whole season was sort of a low point."

This season, the search for a low point remains elusive, but for a different reason: there hasn't been one.

USC plays UCLA on Wednesday at Pauley Pavilion in the rivalry's most significant basketball iteration in years. The Trojans enter the game second in the Pac-12 Conference standings. They are 14-3 overall, 3-1 against league opponents, and they are hovering just outside the top 25 in the national rankings.

So what has changed? On that, the players agree. They're older. They're mentally tougher — not in an abstract sense, but in small ways they demonstrate on the court. And they've added freshmen rim protectors, Bennie Boatwright and Chimezie Metu.

Despite last season's misery, the players do not consider this season's early success a surprise.

McLaughlin said he committed to USC because he believed in Coach Andy Enfield's vision, which has not wavered.

"Any time you're building something there's frustrations along the way," Enfield said. "But there's never been any doubt."

Last season, the coach recognized that USC had the youngest roster of any power-conference school. And, he added, the Trojans lost eight games by five points or fewer.

This season, the players say, they know how to win close games. The major difference may just be experience. Stewart said last season's team wasn't mentally strong, which led to small breakdowns at the end of games. They forgot to close out on shooters or they didn't know what moves an opposing player leaned on during crunch time.

That weakness has turned into a strength. For example, in the fourth overtime against Arizona on Saturday, McLaughlin had studied Arizona guard Gabe York, anticipated his crossover in the final seconds, and batted the ball away.

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"That's just being mentally aware and just mentally tough throughout the whole game," Stewart said.

The win over Arizona was the Trojans' biggest in years. A win over UCLA (11-6, 2-2) would almost certainly vault them into the top 25 for the first time since 2008.

The game is an important one for UCLA, too. Coach Steve Alford, who is in his third season with the Bruins, hasn't lost to USC. Forward Tony Parker is the only UCLA player who has. For the first time since 2013, the game doesn't have a clear favorite.

"You don't want to play cupcakes," UCLA guard Bryce Alford said. "I'm not saying that they were ever a cupcake, but we like that they're getting better and they're a lot better this year."

Asked on a local radio program this week if a competitive USC was good for both teams, Steve Alford laughed.

It's good for the fans, he said.

USC has the type of personnel that could give UCLA a test. Smaller lineups have bothered the Bruins, and USC occasionally uses four guards.

"Our personnel, we have who we have," Enfield said. "And that means we're going to play how we've been successful playing."

He said he was concerned that by going small, USC could get dominated in rebounding. "UCLA has the two best offensive rebounders in the league, Tony Parker and Thomas Welsh," Enfield said.

Alford hopes his team can better defend a small lineup, saying the best counter move is to attack offensively.

"If you do go small, then we're going to make a small [player] guard in the post," Alford said.

Both coaches have downplayed the rivalry. In what many coaches have called the deepest Pac-12 in memory, every game is important.

Enfield, especially, has tried to maintain an even disposition throughout his two-plus seasons as coach. Last season, he often spoke optimistically about the future, even as USC lost game after game. This season, he has been cautious with his expectations.

"Starting the season, his motto was, 'We're really close to becoming a good team,' " Stewart said. "And no matter how many wins we get or who we beat, we're probably always going to be 'really close to becoming a good team.' "

For all that has changed for USC this season, Enfield, his players say, has not.

One exception: "He's a lot happier," Jacobs said. "That's sort of the consensus around the school."

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