UCLA and Love, USC and Mayo

Our basketball columnist, Kennedy Cosgrove, compares and contrasts the two Los Angeles programs, and their two freshman stars, Kevin Love and O.J. Mayo, and how the two players represent their schools and programs...

About a decade ago, UCLA basketball player J.R. Henderson famously dissed USC basketball in an interview, and the quote -- "It's just ‘SC" -- became an affectionate tagline in Bruin circles: simple, clean, with just the right dismissive tone. Stick to football, it implied. This is our sport.

After all, UCLA had 11 banners hanging from the Pauley Pavilion rafters. USC had…a lot of rafters.

UCLA had John Wooden. USC had…George Raveling?

UCLA had Alcindor, Walton, Wicks, Goodrich, O'Bannon. USC had…Paul Westphal? Harold Miner? Brian Scalabrine?

Sure, the two programs may be in the same city, but they have long resided in different stratospheres of the college basketball world. Henderson wasn't very diplomatic, but he was right.

Eleven years later, after Sunday's 56-46 win over the Trojans, another line can be added to the list of telling distinctions:

UCLA has Kevin Love and USC has O.J. Mayo.

The two players are a fascinating study in contrasts, like the two schools for which they chose to play. And at the risk of oversimplifying things, Love and Mayo's performances this season, and in this game particularly, said a lot about what these two basketball programs are, and where they are headed.

The difference was pretty clear to see on Sunday, in what Magic Johnson called "Winnin' Time," the final few moment of a close game.

With 2:45 left and the Bruin offense being stifled by USC, having scored no baskets for over eight minutes, Love made, in my opinion, the play of UCLA's season thus far: a relentless, physical offensive rebound and lay-up between two Trojan big men. The huge bucket absolutely deflated USC, putting the Bruins up by eight and the game out of reach.

Mayo's tally down the stretch: committing three turnovers in the last four minutes, and missing both shots -- contested three pointers, appropriately -- that he took.

Overall, Mayo committed 10 turnovers -- ten! -- and scored only four points.

The game was much more than Love and Mayo, of course. Russell Westbrook played great defense against Mayo ("Phenomenal," said Darren Collison). Luc Richard Mbah a Moute returned from a sprained ankle to contribute 10 points, 10 rebounds, and play lock-down defense against USC's Davon Jefferson. And Collison led the Bruins with 14 points, and was steady at the point guard position.

The win kept the Bruins alone in first place, just ahead of Stanford. And it exacted a measure of revenge, because last month USC upset UCLA at Pauley, outplaying, outsmarting, and out-coaching Ben Howland's Bruins.

But Howland's teams have been very consistent in recent years about avenging early losses, and this game proved to be no exception. USC led by one point, briefly, in the first half, but UCLA led by as many as 12 in the second half, and USC cut it no closer than four -- though it was tense-going throughout the game.

In fact, close, tense games have become the norm for the UCLA-USC games since Tim Floyd took over as the Trojans' coach three years ago, and frankly, USC can't be dismissed so easily as Henderson did in 1997.

True, UCLA (after a brief Lavin hiatus) is back in the business of being UCLA, basketball-wise, while USC is mired in the middle of the Pac-10 standings and not even a lock to make the NCAA tournament.

But the Trojans have talent. They play hard. They're coached by a guy, Floyd, who knows what he's doing. And recently they've played the Bruins consistently tougher than any other Pac-10 team. Each of the last four crosstown games dating back to 2006 has been a legitimate battle, with each team winning two.

And given USC's most recent victory, the pre-game yapping this time emanated from South Central.

"Tell them to come with something," USC forward Davon Jeffereson said of the Bruins, last week. "No excuses, no concussions, none of that."

On one hand, fair play to Davon. Because, reminiscent of Henderson bringing the noise in the papers in '97, UCLA's Josh Shipp needlessly popped off to reporters before the first USC game, essentially calling the Trojans selfish, me-first players. Jefferson heard those quotes -- right before he tore apart the Bruins for 25 points and nine rebounds, punctuating the win with an and-one dunk over Love. Why not return the favor before round two?

On the other hand, when you are a 21-year old freshman with a pretty sketchy history and academic record, and who despite NBA-level physical talent has been held out of four games this year by coaching decision (read: discipline), and you feel the need to woof, you'd better be able to back it up. The lesson is clear: From Jim Croce ("You don't tug on Superman's cape") to Mase ("You play Clark Kent, you'd better have your cape on."), it all reads: sshhhhhh…just play, baby.

Regardless, it was good copy, and UCLA point guard Collison reportedly wrote Jefferson's quote on a t-shirt and wore it on the bus ride to the game.

There was more build-up. USC unveiled special black uniforms and urged all their fans to similarly color coordinate, and have a "Black Out The Bruins" at their home arena, the Galen Center. (It was a strange effect, though; the game looked weirdly dark in photos and on TV. Not exactly sure what USC was going for here.)

The game itself was predictably taut: both teams played tight, and UCLA's offense was definitely out of sync for long stretches of the game, mostly due to USC's great defense.

But in the end, team play, discipline and effort -- in addition to talent -- won out. "We played harder," Collison said. "Guys took it personal."

And ultimately, there's a reason UCLA is 22-3, 10-2 in the Pac-10, and USC is 15-9, 6-6.

And that reason is to some degree symbolized when viewed through the Love vs. Mayo prism.

Anyone following college basketball has already heard of these two freshmen for years. They've been compared and contrasted ad nauseum as high school stars, on the AAU summer circuit, at the McDonald's All-American game, and then again when they both chose to play their one year of college basketball in Los Angeles, for rival schools.

A lot of it is likely uninformed, surface stuff. Some of it may be tinged, sadly, by skin color. Some of it is probably unfair, for both players.

But let's cut to the core. On the college court and off, would anyone in the universe trade UCLA's Kevin Love for USC's O.J. Mayo, right now?

Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?

Love has been the best player on a back-to-back Final Four team from (no hyperbole) virtually the instant he stepped on the floor for UCLA. He is the best player in the Pac-10, and a National POY candidate.

Mayo is the leading scorer for USC, true. But, honestly, is he their best player? I think it's debatable. Yes, there is his 20 points per game scoring average. But at what cost? He averages 0.77 assists per turnover, horrible for a lead guard. (By contrast, UCLA's Collison averages 2 assists per turnover, and Westbrook 1.8 assists per turnover). He frequently shoots his team out of the game. Right before Love scored that huge basket late in the game, Mayo had the ball with his team down by six, with three minutes left. He hadn't hit a jump shot all night. His teammate, the steady and talented Taj Gibson, had been playing great, and was trying to post up for a closer shot. Mayo looked right through Gibson, didn't even consider passing, and jacked up an off-balance trey that, of course, missed (UCLA ball, Love scores, game over).

And this isn't new: Take a closer look at Mayo in some big games this season:

Vs. Kansas: 6-21 shooting, two assists, five turnovers.
At Memphis: 6-20 shooting, three assists.
At Stanford: 5-19 shooting, zero assists, five turnovers
Vs. Arizona: 9-23 shooting.
At Washington State: 6-15 shooting, zero assists, five turnovers
Vs. UCLA: 2-8 shooting, four points, three assists, ten turnovers.

The common thread? All six games, all USC losses. Yes, Mayo has played well in a few games (at UCLA, at Washington, at Cal, at Oregon), but that's a pretty telling list.

Compare that to Love in a list of UCLA's big games so far:

Vs. Maryland: 18 points, 16 rebounds
Vs. Michigan State: 21 points, 11 rebounds
At Michigan: 17 points, 16 rebounds
At Cal: 19 points, 14 rebounds
Vs. Washington State: 27 points, 14 rebounds
At Oregon: 26 points and 18 rebounds, in the Verbal Abuse game.
Vs. Arizona: 26 points, 11 rebounds.

Love, overall: 59% FG shooting, 40% for three-pointers, 17.3 ppg, 11 rebounds per game.

Mayo, overall: 44% FG shooting, leading the Pac-10 in turnovers (95, next closest player, 68).

So we know Mr. Mayo takes bad shots, and a lot of them, and he's careless with the ball. There must be a reason for all the hype. He's not even the most physically gifted USC player with Jefferson and Gibson playing on his team (And did anyone else notice this: When Mayo and UCLA's Westbrook were standing next to each other, did anyone see anything decidedly different about their size, body types or athleticism? I didn't. For all of Mayo's hype, he strikes me as potentially a really good NBA player -- not a star. If he were 6-8, with his skill set, sure. But 6-3, 6-4? In my opinion, NBA stardom is a possibility, not a certainty).

What about intangibles? Love's are off the charts, on a par (is it too early to say this?) with Arron Afflalo's in terms of toughness, clutch play and all-around abilities.

Mayo's intangibles are decidedly on the charts, and not very high up, either, unless your chart is about marketing and name recognition.

There is a long list of, if not red flags, then of Things-That-Make-You-Nervous if he's a player on your team and you really like winning games. There were the multiple high schools he attended, the ref bump/suspension, the final play of his high school career -- throwing a 30-foot alley oop dunk to himself, then throwing the ball into the stands, and being ejected while the crowd roars. There was the no-conscience gunning (4 of 17) in the McDonald's game that was pretty bad even by all-star game standards.

All this ended up in Mayo's essentially being shunned by all big-name colleges during recruiting, and surprisingly announcing to Floyd, through an intermediary, that he would attend USC even though Floyd wasn't recruiting him and had actually never spoken with him. In a juicy detail and tiny power play, his future coach couldn't even get Mayo's cell phone number.

His time at USC started with a much-publicized incident where he broke teammate Daniel Hackett's jaw in a summer pickup game. Officially called "an elbow," I think it's clear by everyone's wink-wink, nudge-nudge quotes, and off-the-record gossip, what actually happened.

Hackett, by the way, missed the Bruin game and is likely out for the season with a vertebral fracture. He is also the guy that made two huge plays for USC down the stretch of their win in Pauley, and in many ways their leader and most important player. And I'll say this: Though he scores about half as many points as his teammate Mayo and has a fraction of the athleticism, or NBA potential, I'd take Hackett on my team in a heartbeat over O.J.

So, the O.J. Mayo Experience has to be considered a mixed bag for USC. With Hackett's injury, they are increasingly looking like a team that won't win much of anything this season.

And though Floyd really can coach, he has established a pattern in recruiting at USC, taking a string of guys (Gibson, Mayo, Jefferson, Angelo Johnson, Mamadou Diarra) who have some combination of academic ineligibility, high school hopping, or character issues. Frankly, he has not been publicly questioned on his SEC-football style, anything-goes mentality in recruiting; nor about two embarrassing emotional hissy fit technical fouls -- one of which cost his team any final shot at an Elite Eight berth last year.

It can't be a huge surprise to realists that such a team, despite its physical talent, finds itself where the Trojans do right now: a future much more uncertain than most teams, with a coach rumored to be a candidate to bolt for the vacant LSU job after the season.

Howland, meanwhile, continues to be the coach that most Bruin fans wouldn't trade for anyone, and UCLA continues to be a team that essentially has Perennial Deep Tourney Run/No Scandal written on it for the rest of Howland's tenure in Westwood.

A study in contrasts, Howland and Floyd. Love and Mayo. UCLA and USC.

In basketball, in L.A., it seems to me that J.R. Henderson probably had it right, way back when.

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