Result: Loss, 92-82
Stats: 34 pts. (12-21 FG, 7-10 FT), 3 rebounds, 3 assists
It is a particular kind of deal with the devil that college basketball coaches make when hitching their wagon to a high school phenom who has no business being in school. On one hand a truly exceptional player can make even the worst coaches, Rick Barnes for instance, look like they know what they’re doing and buy them a few more years before they’re run out of town by torch-wielding alumni. On the other hand, lean too much on your freshman superstar and you run the risk of alienating the rest of the team. You know, the team you’re going to have to coach next year. Of course, a team of smart players realizes that there’s a superstar in their midst and recognizes their role in making the team better, and even a coach as dim as Rick Barnes eventually has to wise up and do everything he can to get him the ball.
And therein lies the rub for USC. The problem Tim Floyd, a much better coach than Barnes, has is that he has a team of outstanding athletes, they’re just not smart or willing enough to recognize that at the very best they are going to be second fiddle on their team. Much has been made of the inordinate number of shots that OJ Mayo has taken for his team, but after watching him several times on TV and seeing him in person last night, it’s clear that if anything USC needs to get the ball in his hands more often. Mayo was fairly efficient from the field, only once or twice did he force a shot. Those rare moments were more than outweighed by the instances where he dearly wanted to go it alone before thinking better of it and deferring to his teammates, as if suddenly chastened by the subconscious voice of his coach, or the sullen glare of his point guard.
More than that though, Mayo is simply the best player on the court when he is on it. Few people were willing to scold Kevin Durant for taking so many shots last season, and indeed still don’t now that he’s chucking in Seattle, but the truth is that he attempted a greater percentage of his team’s shots (34%) than Mayo is (31%). That’s not to say that Mayo is Durant, he’s not, but he’s at least a great enough playmaker that the offense should be running through him. Defenses would surely have to start doubling him, meaning that even Taj Gibson, an outstanding freshman last year who now seems utterly lost, would suddenly find themselves with a lot more breathing room. Alas, isolation plays, so ubiquitous in the NBA, are considered untoward in the college game, where the only person that ever kept Michael Jordan under 20 points a game is still Dean Smith.
It’s not an easy position for Tim Floyd to be in. He still has a talented core of players who will be playing for him long after OJ Mayo is sharing an uncomfortable handshake with David Stern. But so did Rick Barnes, it’s just that his remaining players were good with the role they played with Durant, and are likely even more pleased with the one they play without him. Not to mention that the Longhorns probably didn’t despise each other. In a telling sign, prior to pre-game introductions last night the Bears were assembled in a giant group hug while on the other side of the court the Trojans were scattered around awkwardly like some party where no one knows each other. They’d be a great farm team for the Knicks. USC is confounding. There’s enough overall talent to give just about anyone a run on the right night, but until they warm up to each other, and wise the hell up, their stay in the Tournament will be a short one.