As if facing a team which has beaten three ranked opponents in the past three weeks wasn’t enough of a challenge, UCLA must do it without one of its top players.
Playing the game on the road against a crosstown rival makes things even tougher.
Bouncing back from their first loss of the season won’t be easy for the fourth-ranked Bruins when they meet Southern California on Saturday.
The absence of second-leading scorer Josh Shipp provides UCLA (14-1, 3-1 Pac-10) with a big obstacle at the Galen Center. USC fans are very enthusiastic when their archrival visits, and could be even moreso Saturday with the Trojans (13-4, 3-1) off to their best start since 2002.
Shipp, averaging 14.7 points, has started all 15 of the Bruins’ games but will not be available for this one due to a small tear in his right hamstring.
“We don’t want this injury to prolong itself,” the sophomore swingman said, “so I’m definitely going to have to take the time to let it heal.”
Shipp played through the injury last Saturday, and missed a potential game-winning 3-pointer at the buzzer as UCLA fell 68-66 at Oregon. It was the Bruins’ first defeat since falling to Florida in last season’s national championship game.
“I never thought I’d feel like this again in my entire career here,” Bruins top scorer Arron Afflalo said. “I truly thought this team couldn’t be beat. The way we played and the type of heart we play with, and the type of leadership we have on this team - I wouldn’t say we’re invincible (but) I didn’t think we could be beat.”
Two days earlier, the Trojans handed then-No. 16 Oregon its first loss, 84-82. USC is 3-1 versus ranked teams this season, also beating Wichita State 60-56 on Dec. 23 and outlasting Washington 86-79 in double-overtime Dec. 28.
The Trojans had another impressive performance in their most recent outing, shooting 66 percent from the field in a 91-46 victory at Oregon State last Saturday.
Lodrick Stewart scored a career-high 28 points as USC notched its easiest conference win since 1998. The senior guard appeared to regain his shooting touch during the two-game trip to Oregon, going 9 of 12 from 3-point range and 14-for-19 from the field. Stewart went 8-for-31 from the floor in his previous four games while averaging 6.3 points.
Swingman Nick Young leads USC with 16.4 points per game and freshman forward Taj Gibson has stepped up his play recently, averaging 17.8 points and 9.0 rebounds over the past four contests.
Afflalo is averaging 16.3 points for the Bruins and starting backcourt mate Darren Collison adds 12.9 per game, but UCLA may look for its big men to pick up their production to help make up for Shipp’s absence. In the past nine games, forward Luc Richard Mbah a Moute has scored in double figures just twice and center Lorenzo Mata has done it once.
Over the past 14 months, UCLA has lost back-to-back games only once, and USC was the team that made it happen.
The Bruins were coming off a loss at Washington when they fell 71-68 at USC on Feb. 19, snapping their three-game winning streak in the crosstown rivalry.