Result: Loss, 56-46
Stats: 4 pts. (2-8 FG, 0-0 FT), 9 rebounds, 3 assists, 10 (yes, 10) turnovers
The truth about college basketball and its hold on the general public is that it is a transient thing. For all of the holiday tournaments and inherent tradition of the conference schedule, the sad fact is that most viewers have two basic questions when watching a college hoops game: “How will this team do in the NCAA Tournament?” and “How will these players do in the NBA?” They want to be able to say that they picked UConn for the Final Four because they saw them dismantle Marquette in January. They want to know who can solve their NBA team’s problems at the point, and say they saw him when. Although we here at Pyramid of Excess obviously appreciate the implications of a mid-season Creighton/Southern Illinois game ourselves, we understand. It’s a crowded entertainment world and you have barely enough time as it is to catch up on the latest Maroon 5 album (Here’s a tip to save your time – it sucks).
It would be tempting to say that last night’s game went a long way towards answering both of those questions regarding USC and O.J. Mayo. For Mayo, this was easily the worst game in his young career. He struggled to get his shot off, made terrible decisions with the ball, and didn’t get to the foul line once, an unforgivable sin for a scorer like him. Part of this was due to the absence of starting point guard Daniel Hackett, who is recovering from a stress fracture in his back much more slowly than he did that pre-season “elbow” from Mayo’s fist. With Hackett out, more of the ball handling and distribution duties fall on Mayo’s shoulders, and thus far he is responding with all of the aplomb of Sofia Coppola in “The Godfather III” (though we trust with more sexual chemistry vis-à-vis Andy Garcia). Part of it was due to the defense of Russell Westbrook, not only UCLA’s most athletic players but one of the most athletic players in the country. But to say that Mayo is any less of a prospect based on this one game is unfair. As everyone but John Hollinger knows, Mayo not only is not a true point, he really hasn’t been asked to do this very much, at least not at the college level. His prospects as an NBA offguard should no more be judged by his work as a point than should Coppola’s performance as a dead fish be a barometer of her directorial acumen.
The game probably did go further towards answering the question of the Trojans’ Tournament prospects, but even that is still subject to Hackett’s availability for the rest of the year. With Hackett, this team can be a destructive bracket spoiler. They would have a true point, scoring wings in Mayo and Dwight Lewis, and extremely athletic big men in Taj Gibson and Davon Jefferson. They also have a pretty darn good coach, no matter that he seems to dress with Brian Fantana’s hand-me-downs, and one who doesn’t get nearly enough credit for teaching defense. Playing what is rightfully considered one of the best defensive teams in the country, USC played an exceptional defensive game themselves. They forced UCLA to run the clock out or take bad, hurried shots on numerous occasions, and surprisingly did it without any of Tim Floyd’s usual junk defenses for most of the game. But frankly without Hackett this is a team that may struggle to even reach the Tournament, and it’s not just that they miss him as their primary ball-handler. The USC rotation with Hackett was pretty thin already, with only about 7 guys getting regular minutes. Take one starter away from a team with that little depth and you’re Tournament toast. Mayo will bounce back from this game and USC could still have a Tournament future, but strangely the immediate future of both is going to be determined by the one guy least happy about the O.J. Mayo era.