No. 8 UCLA expects a ‘different, better’ USC with Vincent Iwuchukwu

The second-round bell has rung. It’s time to reconvene in the middle of Los Angeles for the second Pac-12 Conference men’s basketball matchup between UCLA and USC.

The first round went to UCLA: a 60-58 result at Pauley Pavilion after the Bruins saw an 18-point halftime advantage dissipate into thin air. Far from a proverbial knockout.

“This is our first repeat (game) this year,” UCLA coach Mick Cronin said. “Whenever you’re playing repeats, obviously, both teams are going to dissect the tape. What worked, what didn’t work. … ultimately, though, these games come down to performance.”

It’s a repeat game, but Thursday night’s nationally televised game on ESPN2 at the Galen Center (6 p.m.) will look a lot different than game one with USC’s 7-foot, 5-star freshman Vincent Iwuchukwu back on the hardwood after a remarkable recovery from cardiac arrest in the summer.

“It’s awesome to see him back out there so fast,” UCLA’s Jaylen Clark said.

Iwuchukwu’s presence alone changes a lot, especially when it comes to protecting USC big man Joshua Morgan from foul trouble. Morgan, a 6-foot-11 redshirt freshman from Sheldon High in Sacramento, has started all 20 games this season at center.

“They’re a different team with Vince,” Cronin said. “They can rotate Josh Morgan and Vince. We recruited (Iwuchukwu). He’s a tremendous kid.”

Iwuchukwu has been back for only four games. In all four appearances he’s coming off the bench, averaged 10 minutes per game and scored 16 total points.

Naturally, the matchup anchoring the rivalry game now becomes UCLA’s 5-star freshman center Adem Bona versus Iwuchukwu. Bona grinned when asked if the two had ever crossed paths.

“I’ve played with him a couple times in camps,” Bona said. “I’m kind of familiar with him. He moves very well for his size. We’ve chatted before, not this week, but a little bit earlier in the year.”

The eighth-ranked Bruins (17-3, 8-1) struggled against USC (14-6, 6-3) in the second half three weeks ago, being outscored 20-4 in the paint in the second half. That was part of a 28-16 edge for USC in the interior – and that was without Iwuchukwu.

“They’re a different team. They’re a better team now,” Cronin said of the Trojans.

BAILEY IS ‘CLOSE’

UCLA has been without freshman Amari Bailey for seven games. Cronin had said Bruins fans might see Bailey on the floor against Arizona on Saturday, but the former Sierra Canyon star didn’t play in the Bruins’ loss in Tucson.

The highly touted guard, who is working back from a foot injury, is “close”, according to Cronin, who errs on the side of the athletic trainers when it comes to players coming back from injury.

“It’s new-wave stuff,” Cronin said. “When I was a high school coach, we had one roll of tape for the whole team. It’s so high-tech now, I just stay out of it.”

“When they tell me he can play, he’ll play,” he added.

Senior point guard Tyger Campbell has been trying to keep Bailey’s spirits up while he’s been sidelined. Campbell had an ACL injury that kept him sidelined a whole season earlier in his career.

“I know when I was sitting out, it was hard for me to stay confident,” Campbell said. “I keep telling Amari that he’s gotta get healthy because we need him out there. Amari knows why he’s here, he’s a great player. I think he’ll figure it out. He’s a very confident player.”

QUICK NUMBERS, NOTES

The Bruins have compiled an all-time record of 146-114 against USC in a series that began in 1927-28. …

UCLA is seeking its first win against USC at the Galen Center since March 3, 2018. …

Jaime Jaquez Jr. is one of five players in the Pac-12 to rank among the top 10 in the conference in scoring and rebounding. The senior from Camarillo High is fifth with 16.1 ppg and seventh with 7.2 rpg. …

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UCLA’s David Singleton will be the all-time games played leader in program history when he takes the floor against USC Thursday night, topping Michael Roll’s 147 games. …

Jaylen Clark has registered career-high averages across the board during his junior season – 13.9 ppg, 7.0 rpg and a Pac-12-best 51 steals (and 2.68 steals per game).

No. 8 UCLA (17-3, 8-1 Pac-12) at USC (14-6, 6-3)

When: Thursday, 6 p.m.

Where: Galen Center

TV/Radio: ESPN2/790 AM/570 AM

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