DJ Rodman hasn't forgotten Bruins' snub: 3 things to know about USC vs. UCLA

Los Angeles, CA - December 10: USC Trojans guard Bronny James (6) walks off the court.
USC players, from left, Boogie Ellis, DJ Rodman and Bronny James will be looking to lead the Trojans to victory Saturday in their rivalry game against UCLA at Galen Center. (Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

It was the one call DJ Rodman waited for. The one he hoped would come. But the interest from his “dream school” UCLA never did.

And no, the USC forward, now on his fifth season of college basketball, hasn’t forgotten about the snub.

“I’ve always wanted to beat them for however long I’ve been in college,” said Rodman, a Newport Beach native who played the previous four years at Washington State.

After scoring a then-season-high 19 points on seven-of-10 shooting in a one-point loss to the Bruins last year, Rodman can get his revenge Saturday in his first crosstown showdown at 5 p.m. at Galen Center (ESPN2).

Read more: Five takeaways from UCLA's crushing yet encouraging loss to Arizona

For the struggling rivals, Saturday’s matchup offers one team a brief, but welcome, respite from a disappointing season. USC has lost four in a row, its longest losing streak since 2019. The Bruins suffered the second-worst loss in program history two weeks ago.

But the disappointments haven’t dampened interest in the rivalry. USC is expecting a sold-out crowd at Galen Center, where the Bruins (8-11, 3-5 Pac-12) have lost five consecutive times. UCLA coach Mick Cronin has yet to beat the crosstown rival on the road since taking over in 2019. It’s the only arena in the Pac-12 where he hasn’t won a game.

While Cronin tried to downplay the importance of the personal hurdle this week, he didn’t dismiss it, either.

“If the game’s important to your fan base, it better be important to you as a coach,” Cronin said.

Here are three things to watch:

Get well soon

USC's Joshua Morgan, left, defends against Arizona's Jaden Bradley.
USC's Joshua Morgan, left, defends against Arizona's Jaden Bradley during a game on Jan. 17. (Darryl Webb / Associated Press)

Untimely injuries have likely buried USC’s NCAA tournament chances. Even before the current skid with Boogie Ellis and Isaiah Collier missing three consecutive games and forward Josh Morgan working back from an upper respiratory infection, the Trojans (8-11, 2-6 Pac-12) lost to UC Irvine with Ellis and third-leading scorer Kobe Johnson on the bench. A loss to Long Beach State, a second defeat against a Big West opponent, is a glaring blemish that almost no Pac-12 regular-season win could cover up.

Rodman knows at this point the best chance to reach the program's fourth consecutive NCAA tournament is a miraculous championship run at the Pac-12 tournament. With hopes of getting healthy by then, Rodman is preparing to go all in with his teammates.

“We’re just playing like we got nothing to lose,” Rodman said.

Read more: Vincent Iwuchukwu can't save turnover-plagued USC in loss to Arizona State

Morgan, who missed two games, returned against Arizona, but played just 13 minutes off the bench. USC coach Andy Enfield said the redshirt senior is still working back to full health after losing 15 pounds during his illness. Collier remains out for at least two weeks with a right hand injury.

Ellis is day-to-day with a hamstring injury he re-aggravated during the loss to Washington State on Jan. 10. Enfield said this week the fifth-year guard’s availability will come down to a game-time decision, although Cronin is not taking any risks. The UCLA coach is counting on facing the guard who has averaged 22.7 points per game in his last three contests against the Bruins, including a 31-point showing at Galen Center last year.

“He’s been a Bruin killer,” Cronin said. “So the basket gets real big when he sees the four letters playing against him.”

Next men up

USC guard Bronny James prepares to take a free throw against Long Beach State on Dec. 10.
USC guard Bronny James prepares to take a free throw against Long Beach State on Dec. 10. (Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

With Ellis, who is averaging 18.7 points per game, and Collier (15.4 points) on the bench, USC averaged 64 points during the last three games compared to 77.9 in the first 16 games of the season. Ellis was the second-leading scorer in the Pac-12 last season, wowing teammates with his three-level scoring ability that is “like no other player that I’ve played with before,” Johnson said.

“Missing someone like that, it’s a huge thing,” USC’s third-leading scorer continued. “But it’s a huge opportunity for other people to step up.”

Bronny James was the immediate benefactor, starting the last three games with Ellis and Collier out. Working past a minutes restriction while he returned to form after a sudden cardiac arrest in July, the freshman guard averaged 26.7 minutes in the last three games with 18 total points, 11 rebounds and 12 assists to eight turnovers.

Even coming off the bench, James quickly established himself as a much-needed lockdown perimeter defender. He earned enough trust with the coaching staff to feature in closing lineups of tight games when the Trojans needed late defensive stops. But his scoring has fluctuated. James was in an 0-for-14 shooting slump from the field across three games before scoring 11 points against Arizona on Jan. 17 on five-for-11 shooting from the field.

“Bronny’s Bronny,” Rodman said. “He’s going to do his thing. Even if he misses shots, he’s still going to be impactful for our team.”

Sophomore Oziyah Sellers has tried to pick up the scoring slack. The 6-foot-5 guard had fallen out of the rotation because of defensive lapses, but burst out against Colorado for a career-high 18 points. He averaged 11.7 points in the last three games.

“I feel like Oziyah, he’s the one who can really be our X factor,” Rodman said.

Second-half swoons

USC coach Andy Enfield paces the sideline during a game against Eastern Washington at Galen Center on Nov. 29.
USC coach Andy Enfield paces the sideline during a game against Eastern Washington at Galen Center on Nov. 29. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Sellers flashed his explosive scoring ability with 16 first-half points against Colorado. It matched his previous career high and, in the first game without Ellis and Collier, gave the Trojans an unexpected lifeline. Somehow, on the road against the Pac-12’s second-highest ranked team in the NET rankings, USC had a seven-point halftime lead.

Then Trojans gave it up in 10 minutes.

Already on pace to be one of the worst defensive teams in Enfield's tenure by points allowed per game, the Trojans are especially struggling in the second half of games. They squandered a 15-point halftime lead against Long Beach State. Pac-12 opponents are shooting 52% from the field in the second half against the Trojans.

“We gotta come out and start the second half how we start games,” Johnson said. “We gotta come out and bring that energy and I think this past few games, over the course of the season, when we built a lead, we kind of let off the gas. That’s something that we gotta dial in on, and when we got a lead, try to expand it as much as possible.”

UCLA has had its own late-game struggles. The Bruins blew a 15-point, second-half lead against Arizona at McKale Center last Saturday.

Times staff writer Ben Bolch contributed to his report. 

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.