The few glimpses were brief, but breathtaking. A put-back dunk. A pick-and-roll layin. A fierce challenge at the rim. All blips of a bright future stretched over 14 minutes of a blowout win in Tempe.
Vince Iwuchukwu was still finding his footing last Saturday, still working his way back to full strength, six months after suffering cardiac arrest during a summer workout. The fact that the five-star freshman was playing at all at this point in USC's season, given all he'd been through, was noteworthy. But by his fourth game back, as he scored 12 points off the bench against Arizona State, providing a spark on both ends of the court, the implications of the 7-footer's arrival for USC had become abundantly clear to anyone watching closely. Including the rival coach across town.
"They are a different team now with Vince," UCLA coach Mick Cronin said of USC this week.
The Trojans will have the chance to prove as much Thursday, when they welcome No. 8 UCLA to Galen Center, three weeks after their last meeting at Pauley Pavilion went down to the wire. UCLA ultimately escaped that outing with a late Jaylen Clark three-pointer, extending a winning streak that grew to 14 games. USC, in the meantime, has won three of four since its furious second-half comeback fell short in the first matchup, the Trojans finally finding their stride after an uneven start to the season.
"We've really improved as a team," USC coach Andy Enfield said. "We're playing much better offensively. Defensively, we're still tough."
And with Iwuchukwu, the Trojans may have finally found what they've sorely been lacking in the frontcourt. That disparity was on display in the first half of their first meeting, as USC was bullied on the boards and outmuscled by UCLA underneath. The lackluster start led Enfield to bench regular big man Josh Morgan and plug 6-10 stretch forward Harrison Hornery in his place.
Now, USC has a five-star forward rounding into form, opening up a world of possibilities for its approach to upending UCLA, which still holds a 1.5-game lead atop the Pac-12.
"When he steps into his full stride, that's when you're gonna see Vince be Vince," freshman guard Tre White said. "In practice, we see some crazy things out of Vince. When it translates onto the court, we're gonna be used to it, but y'all gonna be shocked, for real."
The Bruins boast their own blue-chip freshman big man facing a critical point in his first collegiate season. Adem Bona has shown flashes of brilliance this season, mixed with lapses of inconsistency, both of which made their presence known in his first clash with USC.
After Bona dominated the first half, shutting down USC completely on the interior, Enfield's move to use the 6-10 Hornery as a stretch five forced Bona out of his comfort zone. He didn't attempt a single shot in the second half, as UCLA managed a mere four points in the paint after halftime.
"Last game, they were able to put Harry Hornery on him," Cronin said. "With Adem, it's always, you know, trying to be aggressive with staying out of foul trouble on defense. On offense, we've got to throw the ball to him. When he's open deep in the paint, we've got to do a better job of passing."
Another star freshman for UCLA could also be nearing a return, possibly as soon as Thursday. Dynamic first-year guard Amari Bailey is "close," Cronin said Tuesday, after Bailey has missed the entire last month because of a lingering foot issue. The freshman averaged 9.5 points, 3.3 rebounds and 2.3 assists over the season's first 13 games, establishing himself as a critical part of the Bruins backcourt. As UCLA makes its case for a No. 1 seed in the coming weeks, he could play an important role.
USC is still in the early stages of integrating its own star freshman. Iwuchukwu, who started under a strict minutes restriction, played just 14 and 15 minutes, respectively, in his last two outings after debuting the week before against Colorado. It's unclear how much longer he might be able to play against UCLA - or how long his minutes may continue to be restricted.
"He's certainly improved dramatically since the Colorado game," Enfield said. "So as he gets his timing back and gets in better shape, understands the speed of the game and gets his strength [back], you'll see him keep improving."
It's an encouraging thought for USC, which finds itself tied for third place in the Pac-12, firmly among the conference's crowded second tier. Thursday marks a critical opportunity to separate itself from that pack and add to its NCAA tournament resume. Whether it can probably depends on how quickly its 7-foot freshman can grow in his role in the coming weeks.
His teammates have made clear how thrilled they are with the pace at which Iwuchukwu is progressing. But in the freshman's own mind, his teammates say, the process hasn't moved fast enough.
"He's hard on himself," White said. "So in the locker room after games, he's like 'Damn, I could've done this, this, this.' I'm like, 'Bro, it takes a couple games to get used to college. I didn't start cooking until a couple games in. Like, you're doing great. You're impacting the game.'
"Now he's getting his feet under him. And the proof is in the pudding."
White has seen firsthand how far Iwuchukwu has come since last July. He remembers vividly the day that his friend collapsed on the court. To watch him come this far, this quickly has lifted the whole team, he says.
"I'm always watching him now - the whole team is - just making sure he's OK, off the court too. Because that's a traumatic experience," White said. "And just to see him running up and down, being Vince, it's what he's here for. It's crazy to see it come full circle."
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.
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