First off, I'd like to introduce myself. I'm Patrick Fitzgerald and I'll be contributing to basketball coverage here at The Bootleg. Some of you may recognize me as a regular member of the 6th Man for the past four seasons. I'm a senior international relations major, and I've been covering the men's hoops beat at The Stanford Daily, where I was Editor-in-Chief last year. I'm looking forward to contributing a new column and being a part of the community here at The Bootleg this season.
Now, on to the good stuff. Much like everyone else, when UCLA and USC roll into town, two names immediately come to my mind: Kevin Love and O.J. Mayo. Of course, this comes as no surprise, given that the two have graced the cover of Sports Illustrated already and, in the case of Mayo, been under the spotlight since eighth grade. How did the two fare against the Cardinal? What were my thoughts and observations from the front row of the 6th Man? I thought you'd never ask...
Hold the Mayo
Let's start with Mayo. One reason Mayo's game is so mature is because he's so, well, old. His birthday is November 5, 1987, which means he's only eight months younger than the senior star of the Stanford women's team, Candice Wiggins. While Candice is unusually young for a senior, Mayo is also unusually old for a freshman.
And he's not the only one on USC's team. The Trojans also trot out 22-year old sophomore Taj Gibson (who is older than me) and 21-year old freshman Davon Jefferson. This led one of the guys next to me in the 6th Man to yell during warm-ups: "Hey Davon, did you buy [20-year old USC sophomore Daniel] Hackett beer last night?" But seriously, every time I hear some talking head on ESPN rave about USC's super freshmen while giving them some ridiculously high ranking, my head wants to explode. These guys are way more developed than their peers for good reason.
Not to mention the puzzling logic by pundits who thought USC's freshmen would be able to replace some seriously talented players that graduated or left for the NBA. Mayo may be young, but it remains to be seen if he's Young. As in Nick. Remember? The slick Trojan swingman who averaged over 17 points his two years at school and was their go-to guy in the clutch? And what about Gabe Pruitt, the solid shooting guard whose numbers fell off a bit his sophomore season but was still a high second round pick by the Boston Celtics? Losing that pair to the NBA, as well as senior guard Lodrick Stewart to graduation, hurts this team more than many were willing to acknowledge before the season. To expect Mayo and his fellow frosh to replace them right off the bat may have been wishful thinking.
That's not to say Mayo isn't a unique talent. As Stanford coach Trent Johnson said after Stanford's ugly 52-46 win on Saturday, the kid is a "handful."
"He's special," Johnson said. "He really is."
Unfortunately, Mayo has been portrayed as being "special" in other ways, too. His off-court drama has been well chronicled, and in my opinion, blown out of proportion.
On the floor, his behavior has been found wanting at times, as well. As one NBA draft website put it, he's a "jaw-jacking, confident player who knows that he can do absolutely whatever he wants out there on the floor." This brings to mind a story passed on to me by Stanford senior center Peter Prowitt, who claims that, despite the three years that currently separate them in school, he and Mayo attended the same hoops camp one year in Virginia.
According to Prowitt, there was an interesting exchange during the camp that went something like this:
Random dude at summer camp comes up to Mayo: "Hey, bro, that's a nice jumper."
Mayo: "Yeah." (walks away)
But can you blame the guy for being arrogant when people have been telling him since he was 12 years old how great he is? It's bound to go to your head at some point.
For the most part Saturday evening, Mayo behaved himself. He didn't whine to the officials or throw a fit when his teammates missed shots (Lord knows, he missed plenty himself). As one player told me after the game, he knows he can't make a mistake now. He's not Ron Artest-level yet, but everyone is expecting some blowup or off-court incident. He's done a reasonably good job of handling himself so far in his collegiate career, I'd say.
As for basketball, he did make some questionable decisions out there. He forced several shots, and made a couple ill-advised drives to the hoop, right into the teeth of the block-happy Lopez twins. But much of the credit should go to the Stanford defense. Johnson inserted senior Fred Washington into the starting lineup to guard Mayo, and Washington did exactly what he was supposed to do – bother Mayo and make him work.
"I tried to not let him get comfortable jump shots and send him into Brook and Robin," Washington said. "He got by me a couple times, but when he does that, I just try to take away a right hand or something, make him go the other way and let Robin send it back."
The plan worked. Mayo shot 5-for-19, the worst performance of his collegiate career. A Mayo drive at the end of the first half ended up providing a huge momentum boost for Stanford after Robin Lopez rejected his shot, setting up a fast break that found Kenny Brown for a buzzer-beating layup at the other end. In a terribly ugly game where both teams bricked bucket after bucket, that energy boost proved to be momentous. The Cardinal opened the second half with seven unanswered points, and never looked back.
Color me unimpressed by Mayo. He's talented, but not as good as advertised. As a couple Stanford players told me after the game, Mayo's most impressive stat so far this season is his ability to put up nearly 17 shot attempts per game.
Where's the Love?
I won't spend as much time on Kevin Love because, well, he's good. How good? Let's just say I think he's even better than his averages of 16.5 points and 10.2 rebounds suggest. He's 6-10, but at 270 pounds, is built like a linebacker. His frame gave Stanford fits inside, as the Lopez twins aren't used to encountering opponents bigger than them. And Love is a far cry from Jon Bryant, Santa Clara's 6-10, 305-pound big man who made things interesting when the Cardinal beat the Broncos 74-48 last month. Love carries his weight well, and while he isn't the fastest guy on the court, he moves quickly enough considering his size.
Love's size also makes a difference on the perimeter. Think Josh Shipp made five threes, which doomed the Cardinal down the stretch on Thursday, on his own? Love's picks helped free Shipp up for many of those shots. His passing skills are also remarkable for a big man, and bode well for a future in the pros. He may not end up being the next Elton Brand, as one member of the Stanford coaching staff predicted, but the potential is clearly there.
It's nice to see the Cardinal finally getting the love in the polls. They're 23rd now in both the AP and the ESPN/USA Today rankings. While Thursday's 76-67 loss to fifth-ranked UCLA was disappointing because Stanford missed so many opportunities, the Bruins are still a top program. Saturday's win against the Trojans was an important statement for the Cardinal. Many players I talked to expressed surprise at USC's lofty preseason rankings, and it was nice to see the Stanford team go out and prove themselves on the court.
Next weekend's road game against Oregon will be the next big challenge. The Ducks lost to ASU but rebounded by taking down Arizona 84-74. A sweep at the Oregon schools would likely boost Stanford's ranking a couple spots, but I wouldn't expect Oregon or Arizona to stay out of the top-25 for too long.
"You know, if it was up to me, I've said since I've been here, I'd play them all the same because that's how I feel about all of them." – coach Trent Johnson on divvying up minutes for his players.
"I definitely had to go out and make up for having zero on Thursday." – forward Lawrence Hill on his season-high 13 rebounds against USC Saturday.
"The only person who shot good was Taj [Finger] and that was 1-for-1. That's not going to happen every day. We were smoking layups left and right." – Fred Washington, on Stanford's abysmal 17-for-63 shooting performance against the Trojans.
Patrick Fitzgerald covers men's basketball as well as the occasional news story for The Stanford Daily. Have some dirt on an opposing player or a good idea for a 6th Man chant? Email him at email@example.com.
Are you fully subscribed to The Bootleg? If not, then you are missing out on all the top Cardinal coverage we provide daily on our website, as well as our full-length feature articles in our glossy magazine. Sign up today for the biggest and best in Stanford sports coverage with TheBootleg.com (sign-up) and The Bootleg Magazine (sign-up)!