UCLA preparing for the problems USC’s Onyeka Okongwu will present

USC's Onyeka Okongwu goes up for a shot during an exhibition against Villanova.
USC’s Onyeka Okongwu is averaging 17.8 points and 9.2 rebounds per game.
(Shotgun Spratling / Los Angeles Times)

Mick Cronin has mastered the pronunciation. That simple act helped the UCLA coach quantify the lob-dunking, shot-blocking sensation from across town who materialized in his dreams, rousing him from a proper slumber.

“I’ve been learning how to say his name,” Cronin said, “since I’ve been waking up at 3 in the morning watching him dunk on people in my sleep.”

It’s On-YEHK-uh Oh-KONG-woo, otherwise known as the USC freshman forward who leads a skilled front line that could cause all-too-real problems for the Bruins on Saturday night when the teams meet at Pauley Pavilion.

Onyeka Okongwu, Nick Rakocevic and Isaiah Mobley form a Trojans trio for which UCLA may have to devise some creative solutions. The 6-foot-9 Okongwu’s all-around prowess has made him a projected NBA lottery pick. The 6-11 Rakocevic is a strong rebounder who provides a complementary scoring punch. The 6-10 Mobley is a force on the fastbreak who remains the team’s fourth-leading scorer despite a recent freshman funk.


The Bruins will counter with … what, exactly?

USC has been dependent on the scoring of freshman center Onyeka Okongwu this season while searching for a reliable second option.

Forward Jalen Hill hasn’t scored in double figures in more than a month. Forward Cody Riley made a negligible impact during the Bruins’ opening week of Pac-12 Conference play, averaging four points and two rebounds in 15 minutes per game.

UCLA (8-7 overall, 1-1 Pac-12) was at its best last week when it used a four-guard lineup featuring the 6-9 Chris Smith at power forward and either Hill or Riley at center, something the Bruins might want to consider repeating against the Trojans (12-3, 1-1). Cronin intimated that he was leaning in that direction when he met with reporters earlier this week.

“Is our big lineup better than their big lineup?” Cronin asked rhetorically. “You know what I’m saying? You’ve got to figure out what gives you the best chance to win.”

Cronin indicated that freshman forward Shareef O’Neal was also in consideration to help, having completed “a great practice” after barely playing last week because of stomach flu.

UCLA’s one constant besides its uneven play and Cronin’s quick hooks for mistakes this season has been its strong rebounding, something that will be put to the test against the Trojans. The Bruins have outrebounded all 15 opponents and lead the Pac-12 in rebounding margin, averaging 8.67 more than their opponents.

But USC averages more rebounds per game, the Trojans’ 40.6 topping the Bruins’ 39.3. Okongwu leads the way with 9.2 rebounds per game, followed by Rakocevic’s 8.7 and Mobley’s 6.3. USC could have a decided edge in this category if coach Andy Enfield decides to play his top three post players together against the Bruins, as he has done at times this season.

UCLA guard Tyger Campbell is introduced before a game against the North Carolina at on Dec. 21 at the CBS Sports Classic at T-Mobile Arena.
(Ethan Miller / Getty Images)

“Our bigs need to dominate that game,” Rakocevic said. “We need to crash the offensive and defensive glass, and we need to be aggressive for all 40 minutes. We plan on winning that matchup.”

The Trojans decidedly failed in their matchup against Washington on Sunday, the Huskies’ zone defense flustering USC into one of its worst offensive showings during a 72-40 setback. Okongwu was the only Trojan to reach double figures in scoring and barely got there with 10 points on a night USC shot 20%, its lowest percentage since 1956.

USC’s struggles illustrated the potential setbacks to a roster that relies heavily on young players in addition to seniors Rakocevic and Jonah Mathews.

“We play our five freshmen a lot,” Enfield said. “Sometimes, when they have off games, like they did on Sunday night, you have to understand sometimes that they’ve never been in that situation before. When all four or five of them play poorly or not up to their potential, it hurts our team.”

Cronin disregarded USC’s clunker against Washington, saying the schedule set up favorably for the Huskies with an extended break in a must-win situation after their loss to the Bruins.

A more accurate reflection of the Trojans, Cronin said, came last month against Louisiana State. Okongwu was held to 10 points in that game but showed his dual value by blocking a shot as time expired to preserve USC’s 70-68 victory. It was his fourth block of the game to go with nine rebounds.

UCLA coach Mick Cronin has a Midwestern demeanor and believes in honesty, which is why he struggled a bit to pump up the Bruins ahead of their game against USC.

Okongwu’s across-the-board excellence is illustrated in his averages of 17.8 points and 2.9 blocks that go with his nearly double-digit figure in rebounding. He’s also making 61.9% of his shots, ranking third in the Pac-12. Okongwu, Rakocevic and Mobley combine to average 37.4 points per game, more than half the Trojans’ total of 72.5.

UCLA freshman guard Jaime Jaquez Jr., who moves into the small forward slot whenever his team plays four guards, said the Bruins are prepared for the Trojans’ imposing front line after previous physical matchups against Washington, North Carolina and Michigan State.

Of course, the Bruins’ mantra could be “Go small or go home” based on their recent formula.

“I think our guys can hold their own,” Smith said. “I definitely believe in our guys.”

Times staff writer Ryan Kartje contributed to this report.


When: 7 p.m. Saturday.

Where: Pauley Pavilion.

On the air: TV: ESPN2; Radio: 570, 790.

Update: Cronin pinned UCLA’s NCAA tournament hopes on giving up 60 points or less in every game the rest of the season, and even that might be a stretch considering the Bruins have a .500 record against Division I teams (with another victory over Chaminade from Division II). USC also isn’t wowing any bracketologists, though the Trojans on Friday were listed among Joe Lunardi’s “Next Four Out” in his latest NCAA tournament projections for ESPN. That means USC will need to pile up wins in Pac-12 play after completing a mostly lackluster nonconference schedule.