It's been nearly two months since Kevin Love and O.J. Mayo ended up in my mailbox together. Glad I finally get to see them on the same court Saturday.
And the way Love gets opposing big men into foul trouble, maybe Mayo will even end up guarding him.
As a West Coast resident, I had USC-UCLA as my Sports Illustrated college basketball cover this season, which was a result of the nation's most hyped recruit landing in the same city as the sport's most storied program. Not a bad angle.
It's just too bad Mayo's Trojans haven't been in the same league as Love's Bruins. But by season's end, that could change -- IF a couple things work out.
(The magazine's other hoops preview covers, highlighting the game's "most heated rivalries," included Indiana-Illinois, Memphis-Tennessee, Louisville-Marquette, Texas-Texas A&M, Florida-Kentucky and Georgetown-Syracuse. For those not keeping score, The Cardinals handled the Eagles Thursday night, while Gordon led his Hoosiers to a road win over the Illini earlier last Saturday. Florida and Kentucky play Saturday, while the Hoyas and Orange face off Monday. Kudes to SI for this version of a real "rivalry week." As for me, I'll be nervous about another rivalry when Kansas travels to Missouri on Saturday. The last time KU started a season like this, their perfect start ended in Columbia. But ANYWAY.)
USC is young in terms of class stature, playing predominantly three freshmen (Mayo, Angelo Johnson and Davon Jefferson) and three sophomores (Taj Gibson, Daniel Hackett and Dwight Lewis), but that doesn't mean the Trojans are inexperienced. Everyone on the roster plays year-round and has seen competition like this before in AAU tourneys and such. They're just unpolished playing together.
(After all, plenty of college teams deal with young rosters today. Kevin Durant was one of four freshmen playing big roles for Texas last season, and Florida's title run began when four starters were sophomores.)
At 10-6, the Trojans have had plenty of downs (season-opening loss to Mercer, 1-3 start in Pac-10 play), but have some decent ups, too, with wins against Oklahoma, Southern Illinois and on the road at South Carolina. They're actually a great defensive team (12th in the Pomeroy ratings for adjusted defensive efficiency), which should keep them in games.
They're also not that young. Mayo, turned 20 in November, and Jefferson is 21.
Their biggest problem is where Mayo should, but hasn't been able to help the most – on offense. The Trojans' shot selection makes me cringe, they shoot too many threes and don't hit the offensive boards. Those three things make it tough for a team to be consistent offensively.
USC could get it together, though. The Pac-10 is tough, but after playing UCLA Saturday and a trip to the Oregon schools next week, seven of the Trojans' final 11 games are at home. With a few résumé building wins, the Trojans could get back to the Sweet 16.
UCLA, on the other, looks Final Four bound, yet again. Without Florida around, the Bruins should be thinking national championship – and that's because of Love.
He's not the nation's best freshman – Indiana's Eric Gordon gets my vote, though it's tough to ignore K-State's Michael Beasley and the impact of Kentucky's Patrick Patterson, who could save the Wildcats' season – but he's probably the most important because he makes UCLA a tougher, more physical team than ever before. Hard to believe, but it's true.
According to kenpom.com, the Bruins (16-1) are just as good defensively as in the past two seasons. (Click here, here and here to compare.) Yet their offensive and rebounding is vastly improved. Most of that credit goes to Love (and super sophomore Russell Westbrook, their most explosive player).
Few players rebound with Love's efficiency (16th in OR%, 10th in DR%) while being as offensively efficient. I've never been impressed with his athleticism, but his footwork and technique is as good as most NBA players. He reminds of me of what Carlos Boozer has become for the Jazz – powerful, reliable and no wasted effort.
All of that makes Love a nightmare to guard. Stanford's Lopez twins both fouled out trying to guard Love during UCLA's Jan. 5 win. Both have about 3 inches on Love, but that didn't help. Love finished with a routine line, 15 points, 7 rebounds, but disrupting another team's front line like that is invaluable.
UCLA's as scary as ever. The Bruins are disciplined, focused and talented. USC could be like that, IF the offense improves, Gibson hits the boards a little harder, Mayo becomes more disciplined and Jefferson more consistent.
Yeah, I know, that's a lot of ifs. The Trojans will have to settle for just being close.