OMAHA, Neb. (AP)—Michael Beasley was standing in a narrow hallway outside the Kansas State locker room. Suddenly, O.J. Mayo appeared at the end of the corridor.
“Yo, Michael!” Mayo yelled.
“Juice!” Beasley screamed back.
They shook hands and embraced, these two freshman stars, both of them stopping by the NCAA tournament on their inevitable journey to the NBA.
Don’t expect things to be so cordial Thursday when Mayo’s Southern California Trojans face Beasley’s Kansas State Wildcats in a game oozing with star power, the kind better suited for the Final Four rather than the opening round of the tournament.
They’ve been friends since their early teens—unless they’re on opposite teams. That’s when things get serious. It doesn’t matter if it’s a pickup game in a deserted high school gym or a pressure-packed NCAA game in a sold-out arena.
“I have no friends on the court,” Beasley said.
Mayo confirmed the intensity of their rivalry.
“Hopefully we’re going to finish this game,” he said, “because usually when we play one-on-one games there’s a lot of arguing and fighting. We hardly ever get to finish the games.”
If not for a change in draft rules, the two freshmen surely would have been NBA rookies this season. But they were required to spend at least a year in college, time spent honing their games and quickly establishing themselves as two of the country’s best players—even if it’s for one season only, as everyone expects.
Mayo led the sixth-seeded Trojans (21-11) in scoring at 20.8 points a game, as well as assists, steals and 3-point shooting. Beasley had an even better season at Kansas State, averaging 26.5 points and 12.4 rebounds to contend with North Carolina’s Tyler Hansbrough for player of the year honors.
Beasley vs. Mayo.
Now that’s a matchup everyone can get excited about, even if you’re on another team.
“Mayo and Beasley, you’ve got to give it to them,” said Darnell Jackson of top-seeded Kansas, which had its own game to play Thursday against Portland State. “The guys are great players.”
Considering their superb skills, it was inevitable Beasley and Mayo would hook up on the AAU and high school all-star circuit. They met when they were 13 or 14 and quickly hit it off.
“After games, we got to meet each other,” Beasley said. “We’re the same kind of guys. We like the same kind of things. We pretty much clicked right away.”
Mayo is even better friends with another Kansas State freshman, Bill Walker. They’re both from Huntington, W.Va., and have known each other since preschool.
“We used to sneak up under our cots at nap time,” Walker remembered, breaking into a grin. “We got in trouble together and, after that, we just bonded.”
Some thought they would be a package deal coming out of high school. But, when it came time to choose a college, they couldn’t have taken two more divergent paths: Mayo chose the glitz and glamor of Los Angeles, while Walker settled for Manhattan—Kansas, that is.
Just imagine if they both had chosen the Wildcats, and joined with Beasley to form the Fab Three.
“We talked before we made our decisions,” Walker said. “He told me that USC was best for his career, and I understood that. Kansas State was best for my career.”
USC is the higher-seeded team, but Kansas State should feel right at home. Omaha is only about a three-hour drive from the Wildcats’ campus, which should ensure plenty of purple at the Qwest Center.
Trojans coach Tim Floyd clearly is not happy with the selection committee for matching his team against one from a neighboring state. When asked whether Kansas State had an unfair advantage, he replied with a glare: “That’s a great observation—and one I won’t comment on.”
USC guard Daniel Hackett shrugged off the geographic inequity.
“It’s a tournament game,” he said. “The Pac-10 got us ready for this. Whoever is going to show up, it doesn’t matter. The game’s being played on the court.”
Kansas State (20-11) finished third in the rugged Big 12 behind Texas and Kansas, but a late-season slump sent the Wildcats tumbling when it came time to work out the seeds. They slipped all the way to a No. 11 seed after dropping six of their last nine games, including an upset loss to Texas A&M in the quarterfinals of the conference tournament.
“No one has us winning this game,” Beasley said. “It’s up to us to prove them wrong.”
But Floyd, in addition to being perturbed about the location of the game, believes his team got the toughest first-round assignment of any No. 6 seed.
“I’m still trying to figure out how they got an 11 seed finishing third in a league as strong as the Big 12,” he said. “I view this as a team you would play in the Sweet 16 because of their talent. I don’t know of anybody in the first round who has the great challenge that (USC forwards) Davon Jefferson and Taj Gibson have with the tandem of Walker and Beasley. Both guys are capable of having 40-point nights. In Beasley’s case, a 50-point night.”
Of course, whoever gets the duty of guarding Mayo will be in for quite a challenge, too.
Take it from Beasley, who will be on the same court as the USC star for the first time since they played a pickup game in California last summer.
“Be ready for anything,” Beasley advised. “I’ve seen O.J. do some pretty daring stuff. I wouldn’t be surprised if he stepped over half-court and let a few go.”