LOS ANGELES (AP)—Back in October, Kevin Love joked that he had the game between crosstown rivals Southern California and UCLA double-circled on his calendar.
That day arrives Saturday, when USC’s O.J. Mayo visits Love’s fourth-ranked Bruins in what could be the first of just two collegiate games between the freshman phenoms.
“It’s going to be a fun matchup,” UCLA guard Darren Collison said.
Catch these two while you can because expectations are that both will leave school at season’s end for the NBA draft.
Mayo and Love first met when their AAU teams played as eighth-graders. Despite growing up on opposite sides of the country—Mayo in Huntington, W.Va., and Love in Lake Oswego, Ore.—they became friends and roomed together while turning up at the same All-Star camps and games.
They even shared the covers of Sports Illustrated and The Sporting News in the same week earlier this season. But Love wasn’t going to talk to his buddy before tipoff.
“I’ll shoot him a good luck (text) because he’s a competitor, but I want UCLA to come out on top,” he said.
Before peddling off on a beach cruiser after practice, Mayo sounded like a drone on the topic of him and Love, who don’t play the same position. Mayo is a guard and Love is a center.
“Maybe the picture is going to be painted like that sometimes, but it’s still USC and UCLA,” Mayo said. “We just want to play for what’s across our chests, which is USC.”
Along with the principals, both teams have resisted the Mayo vs. Love hype and USC coach Tim Floyd came off as downright grumpy about it.
“You know better than that but you want to keep talking about it, right?” he told reporters this week. “We all know it comes down to team versus team.”
On that basis, give the edge to UCLA (16-1). The Bruins are atop the Pac-10 with a 4-0 record and own a nine-game winning streak. They’ve won five of the last six meetings with USC, including the last three at Pauley Pavilion.
The Trojans (10-6, 1-3) have no seniors and three juniors, none of whom are starters. Their offense runs through Mayo, the Pac-10’s second-leading scorer at 19.9 points.
In their first 16 games, USC’s freshmen scored 51.3 percent of the team’s points. Together, the freshmen and sophomores accounted for 96.1 percent of the scoring, the highest percentage in the country.
Love summed it up this way: “We’re a very good team and they got a lot of promise on their team.”
USC played a tougher non-conference schedule than UCLA, which beat ranked Michigan State and lost to ranked Texas in between soft opponents.
The Trojans lost by four points to both Kansas and Memphis in December, then lost by six at Stanford and by 15 to Washington State at home.
“How we got to 10-6, it’s called playing three teams in the top five in the country,” Floyd said. “We really like our team, we’re just young right now and have played an exceptional schedule.”
While Mayo is the star of his team, Love is surrounded by veterans who’ve been to consecutive Final Fours. They help take pressure off the 6-foot-10, 271-pounder, whose skills as a scorer, rebounder and outlet passer extraordinaire are well documented.
Love’s dominant presence in the post has allowed Collison, Josh Shipp and Russell Westbrook better scoring opportunities.
Love has eight double-doubles this season, including a season-high 27 points and 14 rebounds in last week’s 81-74 win over then-undefeated Washington State.
Mayo is capable of bigger scoring games, though. He popped for 32 points in his college debut, a loss to Mercer, then scored 34 against California earlier this month.
“We just need to make sure we have a hand in his face, make it as hard for him as possible to shoot the ball and don’t give him any easy looks because he’ll knock it down,” Love said. “We’re confident we can slow him down.”
Collison and Westbrook played against Mayo in pickup games last summer that attracted NBA players on the UCLA campus.
“We understand what he can do,” Collison said. “But we aren’t thinking about guarding him individually, we are looking at it more as team play.”
Mayo and Love thrive on big-game situations, and Love can’t wait for Saturday.
“It’s going to hit me when I step onto the floor before gametime. I hope it’s electric,” he said. “I don’t want there to be a place to sit, really even a place to stand.”