Gamecocks and Trojans set to square off
Even though fans may see the game as the battle for the "real USC," Trojans' head coach Tim Floyd wants no part of the discussion. He had a very quick answer when asked what people should call the Trojans.
"SC," he said. "‘Southern Cal' is offensive. So I assume we'll see signs dictating that at the game."
Naming issues aside, both teams are very young. The Trojans have no seniors on the roster, and are likely to start three sophomores and two freshmen. The Gamecocks have just one senior, and will start two juniors, two sophomores, and a freshman. There is, however, a very big disparity in the size of the two teams. The Trojans' starting lineup includes three 6'5" guards and a 6'9" forward. The Gamecocks will be dwarfed, particularly in the backcourt where the starters are 5'9", 6'0", and 6'2". The Gamecocks make no secret about how they plan to counteract the size disadvantage - They will run.
"This is the first time that we've met a team that is as talented and as big at all positions, and we've got to make speed and quickness an issue in our favor," said Dave Odom.
At some point, the Gamecocks will have to defend the halfcourt, and that is where Odom has to make a decision. Freshman sensation O.J. Mayo is the Trojans' leading scorer and second leading rebounder, so the 6'5" guard will demand the bulk of the defensive attention on the perimeter. That responsibility will fall to Zam Fredrick, with Devon Downey guarding Daniel Hackett. Odom feels like Fredrick's skill as a defender is underappreciated by most people.
"He's better than advertised," he said. "A lot of times when you have a guy who scored as many points as he had in high school, and comes with the reputation of being a gunslinger, you forget about the other parts of his game. I think maybe the best part of his defensive ability is his basketball IQ. He knows where the shot is likely to go up, and if he's involved in it, he knows how to stop it in some way."
Even though all the reporters in the room wanted to talk about Mayo, Odom emphasized that he will not design a defense around stopping one player at the expense of the other four. SC is far more than a one-man team, so team defense will be important.
"He deserves a lot of attention," said Odom, "but they've got other players who I feel deserve at least an equal amount. O.J. Mayo is who he is: a very, very talented college player. If you give too much attention to him, it frees up quality players at every other spot."
Odom noted that forward Taj Gibson, who is averaging a double-double, poses the biggest challenge for Carolina. Gibson had 16 points and 14 rebounds against the Gamecocks last season, and Carolina has struggled to defend the paint against smaller opponents like S.C. State and The Citadel.
On the other side, Floyd has to figure out a way to stop Downey. He did not reveal too much in the way of strategy, but Floyd thinks Downey is one of the best point guards in the nation.
"O.J. has been telling me for a long time that he's a terrific player and as good as any of the great point guards in the country," Floyd said. "After watching film, I'd have to agree with him on that."
The Trojans were ranked 18th in preseason polls, but they lost their first game to Mercer, 96-81. However, they were without one of their primary ball handlers in Daniel Hackett, who was sidelined with a broken jaw. He returned for the Trojans' second game, and SC started their east coast swing with a win at The Citadel, 74-47, on Thursday night. The Gamecocks also beat The Citadel in their second game of the season, 103-42, and won their season opener against S.C. State, 92-67.
Downey and Mayo have history on the hardwood
Both Southern California and South Carolina are led by standout point guards, and nobody knows that more than the two players themselves. The story of how the two players got to this point is a lesson in contrasts and geography. Devon Downey does not have a lot of national hype, plays for a team that is an afterthought in its own conference, but he rules the roost for the Gamecocks. O.J. Mayo, on the other hand, plays in the Entertainment Capital of the World (according to the Southern California media guide), has a story about him in this week's issue of Sports Illustrated, and has hype to spare. Despite the differences in hype and location, the player from USC East and the player from USC West know each other well from the time they spent in the Queen City of the Midwest.
Before transferring to Carolina, Downey spent his freshman season at Cincinnati. While he was with the Bearcats, Mayo was a high school player at North College Hill High in Cincinnati. The two had previously met in AAU camps, but it was during that year in Ohio that they formed a friendship and developed a respect for each other.
"I just have respect for the way he carries himself," Downey said. "At the camp, it was [like] a one-on-one drill; we just went at it. We wanted to guard each other, just me and him. He would come up to the gym [at Cincinnati] and play every now and then. The days they would play in our gym... I would go and talk to him."
Even though he is the one with the hype, Mayo thinks that Downey is one of the best point guards in the nation. He said it is only a matter of time before the rest of the country finds out.
"He's a very talented guard," said Mayo. "You hear a lot of other names, but then you come across a guy like Devan who is hungry and plays hard. I'm excited to be on the same floor and compete with him. I think after this year in the SEC, playing the Floridas and the Kentuckys, his name is going to get out."
In talking to both players, you would never know that they are two of the best at what they do. Both would rather talk about their teammates than about themselves, and if they did not sound so sincere, both would sound like they had been well-versed in coach speak during interviews.
Mayo gained some notoriety when he essentially recruited himself to the Trojans. He committed to SC without making a visit, and refused to give coach Tim Floyd the number for his cell phone until he got on campus. The ordeal created the impression that Mayo is only interested in promoting himself, and at the expense of the program. The Trojans all refute this, and consider Mayo a model teammate. Mayo explained the situation by saying, "[Basketball] is a business," and he never wavered from that point of view. When he was asked what he had noticed about South Carolina in his first trip to the state, Mayo said, "I just stay in the hotel room."
"I take the game very seriously," he said. "I just want to get better as a team and play at our highest level. The way I approach the game is important."
As for Downey, he knows that if the Gamecocks can knock off the much more heralded Mayo and the Trojans, some of the attention might start to drift his way.
"I feel like if we can win, our team will get respect," said Downey. "This is a team people say is going to be in the NCAA Tournament. I think this really is a good statement game."
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