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Bubble popping: USC looks for sharp win over rival UCLA

USC coach Andy Enfield argues a foul call against the Trojans during the first half of a game against Utah on Jan. 30 at Galen Center.
USC coach Andy Enfield argues a foul call against the Trojans during the first half of a game against Utah on Jan. 30 at Galen Center.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

While the first-year coach across town became a meme and his team’s stunning seven-game winning streak caught the attention of the nation, an exasperated Andy Enfield threw up his hands last Saturday night.

The Trojans had just won their fourth game in six tries, temporarily securing their spot on the tournament bubble, when the USC coach was asked at the postgame news conference about his team’s home court. The frustration came flowing out from there.

“We don’t have that energy in the building,” Enfield said after USC upended Arizona State 71-61. “We don’t have that great home-court advantage. Today was a home-court advantage. I thought it was tremendous. Next Saturday should be a sellout and the students will be here. It’s an ever-evolving process, with the traffic in L.A., the student support. I don’t know what else we can do.

“When you put four guys in the NBA the last two years, you have a lottery pick on your team now, you’ve won 20 games four out of the last five years, and you’re competing for NCAA tournaments and Pac-12 championships. It’s pretty good basketball.”

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Unlike its ice-cold-turned-scorching-hot rival at UCLA, USC has played pretty good basketball for most of the season. With five Quadrant 1 wins, according to the NCAA’s NET rankings, and just two losses outside of that top tier, the Trojans have been steady, albeit unspectacular. They haven’t won more than three Pac-12 games in a row, nor have they lost more than three consecutively. But their NCAA tournament case, on paper, is still more convincing than the crosstown rival Bruins, who were just a game above .500 one month ago.

USC guard Kyle Sturdivant knows the grief for his father won’t fade anytime soon, even as he returns to the game he and his father once bonded over.

That disparity will be meaningless on Saturday, when the rivals on the tournament bubble meet in a high-stakes, nationally televised matchup at sold-out Galen Center. UCLA (19-11, 12-5) is perhaps the nation’s hottest team, with a chance to legitimize its late-season run and clinch a share of the Pac-12 regular-season title, while USC enters this week with a better record (21-9) but none of the same sizzle.

That’s fine with senior forward Nick Rakocevic, who doesn’t bother with bracketologists anymore. Not after 2018, when the Trojans entered their regular-season finale under eerily similar circumstances.

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UCLA entered that early March matchup firmly on the tournament bubble and beat USC in front of a capacity crowd — the last time the Galen Center was sold out.

The Bruins made the tournament. The Trojans, who rebounded to advance to the finals of the conference tournament, did not.

“We were 20 minutes away from winning the Pac-12, that’s how close we were,” Enfield said, shaking his head.

The disappointment of that snub also stuck with Rakocevic, who along with senior guard Jonah Mathews could become the winningest Trojans in program history with a victory on Saturday.

A seven-game win streak and a first-place standing has brought a lot of attention to UCLA’s basketball team. But the Bruins’ focus on their game against USC on Saturday.

“I don’t care what they say,” Rakocevic said when asked if USC’s tournament resumé was getting enough attention. “It’s all just noise.”

Bruins coach Mick Cronin has kept with some variation of that message over the course of UCLA’s two-month turnaround, treating every game like “a one-game tournament.” Enfield has only just fully embraced the cliché as the postseason draws near. Both are trying to maintain composure through a make-or-break stretch.

But where the Trojans are still seeking validation, the surging Bruins — and their 8-1 record in February — aren’t sliding under the radar any longer.

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“It’s not going to go to my head,” Cronin said. “The players is another concern. … It’s your job as a coach, you’ve got to make sure your team’s feet get back on the ground.”

USC’s best hope of keeping its soaring rivals grounded involves its star freshman. Onyeka Okongwu was a victim of early foul trouble and quickly became inconsequential in their first meeting, finishing with a season-low four points. That won’t fly this time around in what’s likely his final game at Galen Center.

Okongwu’s coaches and teammates have already accepted his one-and-done fate as a foregone conclusion. So Saturday presents an opportunity for the big man to put a stamp on his sole season at USC.

“I’ve been saying since literally the first game that this kid was going to be a lottery pick,” Rakocevic said.

That fawning attention has been there all season for their star freshman. With the tournament looming and their NCAA tournament status uncertain, now is the time for the Trojans to prove they’re deserving of the same.


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