Commentary

L.A. freshmen have handled expectations and led teams to success

Originally Published: March 17, 2008
By Andy Katz | ESPN.com

LOS ANGELES -- Freshmen Kevin Love and O.J. Mayo may be done playing against each other in college. The one year in Los Angeles for each may be all that UCLA and USC get from the likely NBA lottery picks.

OJ Mayo
AP Photo/George NikitinThere were doubts about how O.J. Mayo would fit in with his USC teammates, but the Trojans say Mayo has been part of the team since day one.

They played three times. UCLA won twice.

Mayo and Love are two vastly different players. One is a 6-foot-5 guard who takes most of his team's shots and is relied upon to create looks for himself and teammates. The other is a 6-foot-10, 271-pound center who operates mainly in the low post and does most of his damage on the offensive glass but can also step out and hit 3-pointers.

But they have had a remarkably similar impact. Without them, there's no way USC or UCLA would be in its current position heading into the NCAA tournament.

USC probably wouldn't have made the Dance. UCLA wouldn't have been a No. 1 seed, let alone the Pac-10 regular-season and tournament champ.

It is rare -- extremely rare -- that two players could come into a city built on star power with so much hype, and yet deliver in almost every way.

There were plenty of questions about Mayo's ability to be unselfish and to shoulder the load of a team, let alone a program. Love's character wasn't questioned, but his ability to be a dominant, national player of the year candidate wasn't expected.

So, as the two enter the NCAA tournament this week, they are in as a good a position as possible. Mayo is averaging 20.8 points, 4.6 rebounds and 3.3 assists, and he made the All-Pac-10 first team. Love averaged 17.1 points and 10.6 rebounds and was named the Pac-10's player of the year.

Tournament Impact Freshmen

Player Stats
DeJuan Blair, Pitt 11.7 PPG, 9.1 RPG
Jerryd Bayless, Arizona 20 PPG, 41% 3PT
Michael Beasley, Kansas St. 26.5 PPG, 12.4 RPG
Austin Daye, Gonzaga 10.6 PPG, 4.6 RPG
LaceDarius Dunn, Baylor 13.5 PPG, 42% 3PT
Eric Gordon, Indiana 21.3 PPG, 85% FT
Blake Griffin, Oklahoma 15 PPG, 9.4 RPG
Matt Howard, Butler 12.6 PPG, 60% FG
Robbie Hummel, Purdue 11.6 PPG, 47% 3PT
Davon Jefferson, USC 12 PPG, 6.3 RPG
DeAndre Jordan, Texas A&M 6.2 RPG, 62% FG
Kevin Love, UCLA 17.1 PPG, 10.6 RPG
Kalin Lucas, Michigan State 10 PPG, 3.8 APG
O.J. Mayo, USC 20.8 PPG, 41% 3PT
Patrick Mills, Saint Mary's 14.5 PPG, 1.8 Steals
E'Twaun Moore, Purdue 12.7 PPG, 44% 3PT
A.J. Ogilvy, Vanderbilt 17 PPG, 6.8 RPG
Terrence Oglesby, Clemson 10.5 PPG, 41% 3PT
Derrick Rose, Memphis 13.9 PPG, 4.5 APG
Kyle Singler, Duke 13.6 PPG, 5.9 RPG

And both could legitimately lead their teams to the Final Four. The Bruins, with Love as the anchor, are expected to win the West Regional. And the No. 6 Trojans are in a Midwest Regional where top-seeded Kansas barely squeaked out a four-point win over USC in December.

It's all good for these two -- so good that both schools are almost giddy about the way each star player handled his famed freshman season.

"He's exceeded them," UCLA coach Ben Howland said of the expectations on Love. "He handled all the hype. It's one thing to say it, but he thrived in it. You have to handle it at UCLA. He came in here as the national player of the year in high school, the cover on SI, the cover of this, blah, blah, blah, and yet he exceeded everybody's expectations."

"It's hard to think where we would be without [Mayo]," said USC coach Tim Floyd, who added that Mayo originally thought he'd be coming to a team that had Gabe Pruitt and Nick Young, both of whom left a year early for the NBA last spring. "He goes out and wins games. He's unselfish. He's got the greatest demeanor in college basketball. His facial expressions never change. He's so poised with his teammates. They respect him. He doesn't try to separate himself."

Both freshmen have been incredibly respectful. They both are students of the game, thirsting for more knowledge on the sport from elders. With the media, they are polite and gracious with their time.

Whether it was fair or not, there was a perceived rep for Mayo in the locker room. Would he be Barry Bonds-like, having his own area and staying more to himself? There was the unconfirmed rumor that he intentionally elbowed Daniel Hackett and broke his teammate's jaw in a pickup game prior to the season, too.

Floyd and Hackett have denounced that story. In fact, Hackett, who was riddled with injuries this season -- something that forced Mayo to take on even more responsibilities -- fawned over how good a teammate Mayo has been this season.

"He pushes me, he pushes himself, and while things can get chippy at times, it's because we all want to win games," Hackett said. "Obviously people wanted to make a big deal out of that. A lot of people take shots at him, but look at him. He's a successful kid. I'm proud to see him be successful. I've known him a long time, and he's handled himself in college and that's not an easy thing to do."

Teammate Taj Gibson said Mayo has been spirited in the locker room, too, and also wanted to take on defensive challenges, like asking to guard Arizona State star freshman guard James Harden last week in the Pac-10 quarterfinals. Harden had 16 points on 6-for-13 shooting in USC's 59-55 win.

"He's been one of the guys, hanging with all of us," Gibson said. "He's been a great teammate."

Mayo said he didn't expect the speed of the college game to be an adjustment, but it was for him. He said that the length of the season, which started in the middle of August when practice began, has been a grind. But he has been able to stay injury-free, something that was a must on this team with Hackett, Davon Jefferson and many others banged up during the season.

And he worked at his craft. Floyd and Mayo said that Mayo went to work on his game for hours after the home loss to UCLA in mid-February when he mustered a career-low four points, the only time this season he has failed to score in double digits.

"We weren't playing good basketball in tight games and we weren't in rhythm," Mayo said. "You want to get in the lab before or after practice and figure out how to make good plays."

[+] EnlargeKevin Love
Stephen Dunn/Getty ImagesKevin Love was expected to be a solid low-post presence for UCLA, but not many expected him to be the Pac-10 Player of the Year.

One loss in particular ate at Love. Texas held him to 11 points and five rebounds (both tied for his season lows) as the Bruins lost their first game of the season on Dec. 2.

"That Texas loss was the first one I had felt in a long time," said Love, who, like Mayo, didn't often experience losing in high school.

If anything, losing made Love get in even better shape. Once he was in condition -- and he was free to launch 3s because of his added mobility -- Love's all-around game was as dominant as any player's in the country.

"I think I met my expectations," said Love, who suffered back spasms in the Pac-10 tourney final against Stanford. "There were certain distractions, but it's been the ride of my life."

The distractions he referenced were his fame around campus. After games at Pauley Pavilion, Love has had a line of fans waiting for him for an hour outside the locker room. Unlike Darren Collison, his lead point guard, Love said he can't put a hooded sweatshirt over his head and blend into campus. His height and gregarious personality always stand out.

"I don't know how he handled it," Collison said. "It's real tough. He's handled the media, all the hype really well. He's done all you could ask. He's been so consistent, and that's the most important thing. He never takes a day off. One of the reasons we're together the way we are is because of him. He's real enthusiastic. He makes everyone laugh and has blended in well from day one."

Mayo and Love have handled themselves ego-free and selfless in the locker room and they still contribute in every fashion to their teams' success. They have both had a huge success, with likely more to follow. If they leave for the NBA draft, they can do so knowing they had a lasting effect on their respective programs.

This isn't new, though. It's actually a recent trend. One-and-done players for the past two seasons of this hype (i.e., Kevin Durant and Greg Oden) left with the same kinds of kudos trailing them to the draft.

"I'm not sure there is a better way to handle it than the way Kevin did this year," UCLA junior Josh Shipp said.

"It's been a great season," Gibson said of Mayo. "He really made other players better."

That's all you can ask of each of them. And yet, they found a way to do even more.

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.

Andy Katz | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com