Los Angeles Schools Bring Big Matchup Challenges to Haas Pavilion

Photo: Harper Kamp scored a combined 40 points during Cal's two-game road trip to the Los Angeles schools in January.
Karen Ling/File
Harper Kamp scored a combined 40 points during Cal's two-game road trip to the Los Angeles schools in January.

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Mike Montgomery doesn't care how poorly Donte Smith has been shooting of late.

All he remembers is USC's junior guard lighting up the Bears for eight 3-pointers at the Galen Center on Jan. 22; his 22-percent clip from beyond the arc since was of little importance.

"I only know what I saw," Montgomery said at Tuesday's media press conference. "That wasn't great."

Regardless, it's a risk Cal (13-12, 6-7 in the Pac-10) may have to take as it prepares to face two burly front lines at Haas Pavilion, starting with tonight's 7:30 p.m., rematch against Nikola Vucevic and the Trojans (13-12, 5-7).

The 6-foot-10, 260-pound Vucevic has been a beacon of consistency on an otherwise floundering USC squad, and presents problems for a Bears team short on front-court depth. An imposing inside presence on both ends of the floor, the junior forward from Montenegro regularly churns out double-doubles, and has only one single-digit scoring performance in conference play.

That slip-up came in last month's 68-66 loss to Cal. Limited by early foul trouble and bothered by the Bears' pesky zone defense, Vucevic managed just six points all evening. Fellow 6-foot-10 forward Alex Stepheson didn't fare much better, mustering eight points in Los Angeles.

"(Vucevic) got his third foul on kind of a mental error right before the half, which was fortunate for us," Montgomery said. "We kind of went after him in the second half. I think he was really tentative. He's a really good player, so we're gonna have to be really careful with him."

Cal will likely return to its zone defense tonight in order to protect itself inside - not a bad gamble, given USC's glaring lack of backcourt production. The Trojans failed to score more than 51 points during their last two losses (to Oregon and UCLA, respectively), and the team's four guards - Smith, Marcus Simmons, Maurice Jones and Garrett Jackson - combined to shoot 17-for-50 from the field. No backcourt player reached double figures in those contests.

The bigger challenge on Sunday comes from Ben Howland's Bruins, who roll in having won nine of their last 10. Unlike its Southern California counterparts, who rely on one principle scorer inside, UCLA puts out a physical, three-headed frontcourt of Tyler Honeycutt, Reeves Nelson and freshman behemoth Joshua Smith.

More importantly, the Bruins bring much-improved guard play that could create issues for Cal's zone. Malcom Lee did a masterful job shutting down Allen Crabbe at Pauley Pavilion, but UCLA's primary defensive stopper has really picked up his offensive game as of late. After combining for 33 points with Lazeric Jones against the Bears in January, Lee is averaging 14.3 points over his last seven conference tilts.

"Malcom Lee is shooting the ball very well, it's just a variety of things coming together for them," Montgomery said.

"I thought last game, that they move the ball against the zone about as well as I'd seen a UCLA team in a lot of years. They're playing very well together, they've figured out what they need to do to be successful."


Ed Yevelev covers men's basketball. Contact him at [email protected]

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