Despite being led by talented freshman O.J. Mayo, Southern California was left disappointed at the end of the 2007-08 season after failing to reach expectations.
With Mayo now in the NBA, the No. 18 Trojans will turn to another highly touted freshman in DeMar DeRozan as they open the season against UC Irvine on Saturday.
USC returns three starters from last season’s 21-12 team, which tied for third in the Pac-10 and suffered a first-round exit in the NCAA tournament to Kansas State.
It was a frustrating end to a season that began with high expectations due in large part to the hype surrounding Mayo, who led the Trojans with 20.7 points and 3.3 assists while adding 4.5 rebounds per game.
“You strive to reach the ultimate goal and we felt we didn’t reach our goal,” junior Taj Gibson said. “Statistically, everybody thought we would make it, but we let ourselves down and now this year we hope to correct that.”
Now, the Trojans will be looking to another young player to pick up where Mayo left off. DeRozan, a highly touted recruit from nearby Compton, Calif., was a 2007-08 McDonald’s All-American who also won the slam dunk competition. DeRozan said he’s ready to slide into Mayo’s role.
“I just figured I have the ups and understanding the stuff earlier than O.J. because I came to every game and came to practices and watched the team and O.J.,” DeRozan said. “I want to be an overall player, some say I just score. I just want to be an overall player at both ends.”
Coach Tim Floyd recognizes that the comparisons between the two players will be unavoidable, but he cautions against placing too many expectations on DeRozan.
“DeMar may represent to our fans more of what they thought O.J. might be in terms of athleticism,” he said. “You know, he just looks the part, 6-7, as good an athlete as there is in the United States, but in addition to that he has worked extremely hard on his game. I like his skill level.
“Certainly there are going to be things we are going to stress that he may not have gotten at Compton High School, but I think he’ll respond to that.”
While DeRozan may take time to adjust, Gibson is looking to build off last season’s performance.
Gibson averaged 10.8 points and a team-leading 7.8 rebounds in 2007-08. He passed on moving on to the NBA, instead returning to USC in hopes of leading the Trojans to a Pac-10 title for the first time since 1985.
“After last year’s season, I didn’t think it was right for me to leave,” Gibson said. “I just wanted to come back and represent this university on the right note. We felt we didn’t play as well as we should have played (in the NCAA tournament). I wanted to come back and get better, and in addition to that, try and win the conference championship.”
Starters Daniel Hackett and Dwight Lewis also are back. Hackett averaged 8.6 points and 3.8 rebounds while Lewis averaged 10.8 points.
The Trojans have lost their last three season openers under Floyd after winning the previous 10.
UC Irvine went 18-16 - its highest victory total in five years - and finished fifth in the Big West in 2007-08. Its biggest task will be trying to find someone to carry the offense after losing three of the team’s top four scorers from last season.
Michael Hunter is the top returning scorer for the Anteaters at 8.8 points per game.
USC is 4-1 against UC Irvine. The Trojans won the last meeting 90-70 on Nov. 22, 2004 - the last time they won a season opener.