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Worth the trouble?

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Over and over, Tim Floyd keeps telling the story of how the tooth fairy delivered O.J. Mayo to the University of Southern California and you wonder how he doesn't break a smile. Let’s face it: When a runner for an agent, once busted for buying a plane ticket and hotel room for a past USC star, walks into the coach’s office and promises to deliver the biggest prospect since LeBron, well, no one needs to feel guilty for failing to believe what follows next is the truth, whole truth, and nothing but.

Whatever Floyd is selling, nothing just happens in big-time college recruiting. Mayo has been a pawn for too many people to believe the story that he just picked USC out of the Peterson’s Guide to One-Year Wonder Schools. Mayo, a prodigious 6-foot-5 talent, has been yanked in and out of high schools, passed around through a web of family, advisors and shoe reps. Ultimately, he finds himself under the control of a Los Angeles promoter with a checkered past named Rodney Guillory.

How do you think this is going to end?

The NBA had a banner year with its new age limit, using college basketball to turn Texas’ Kevin Durant and Ohio State’s Greg Oden into television stars before they enter the 2007 NBA draft. These freshmen were well-schooled, and well-adjusted kids. Truth be told, they were perfect gentlemen. These were NCAA-sanctioned poster boys for the one-year wonders, but all that promises to change next season with Mayo, a raw recruit.

Already, it’s clear that Floyd promises to be one more enabler in a long line in this kid’s life. The idea that a year at college is going to humble and nurture Mayo and make him better equipped to deal with the real world, is March talking-head nonsense. If he had the chance to go straight to the NBA out of high school, maybe then there could’ve been a chance for him to be disciplined and policed in a locker room with pro coaches and veteran teammates who wouldn’t be obligated to indulge his immaturity. In some ways, that could’ve been the most useful education for him.

But until he turns pro, Mayo holds the hammer over everyone. This kid is smart and savvy, and that makes him more dangerous here. Floyd will be at his mercy, because the USC Trojans, so they think, anyway, need Mayo more than he will ever need them.

“If I had my preference, we’d let him go to the NBA right now,” Floyd said last Thursday at the East Regional. “If he’s good enough, as good as we think he’s going to be next year, I don’t want the responsibility of him coming in and tearing up his knee like Shaun Livingston did with the Clippers.

“If he’s good enough, I’m going to kick him out a year from now. I don’t want the responsibility.”

When it comes to responsibility with Mayo, Floyd will do the kid a favor if he takes some on himself. Despite his dreadful NBA run, Floyd took USC to the Sweet 16 in his second season. He doesn’t need Mayo to validate the Trojans' program. Nevertheless, Los Angeles is a star town, and SC basketball has forever been in the shadow of UCLA. For better and worse, everyone will be watching the Trojans, and in this reality TV world, people are willing to live with the consequences that will come of it.

“The whole thing gets down to talent, and having talent and being able to keep talent,” Floyd said.

I wrote a column that defended Mayo for the flop that I thought a West Virginia high school official took on what looked like a phantom bump in a December game. I still believe it was a cheap stunt by the official, but I’m not going to defend Mayo for getting into fights, and getting caught in a car with a convicted felon and some weed recently (the citation for marijuana was dropped). And there’s no defending the final moments of Huntington’s 103-61 state championship game victory, when on a breakaway in the final minute, he tossed a pass to himself off the backboard, dunked it and then heaved the ball a hundred feet into the stands. (Watch the video here.)

Everyone cheered and cheered and cheered him, which you'd expect from students watching the greatest show in high school basketball today. But to watch his high school go along with this kind of a graceless act made you understand that the kid was running the show there, and that’s how it’s been throughout his brief, flammable high school career in Ohio and West Virginia.

As one major college coach who has seen his share of Mayo over the past few years told me on Thursday, “I watched the (video) of that, and all I could think is, ‘Somebody is not teaching something there.’ It was just an example of where it’s gone, of the entitlement and enabling that’s gone on with him. I don’t know if he’s ever been told ‘No.’

"I've seen a lot of those guys, and I put him right there with Kobe and LeBron in having what it takes physically to play right now. If he could just keep his head together, he could start for any NBA team right now.

“But who the hell is going to tell that kid to go to study hall in January, and study for that geography test?”

For now, Floyd keeps talking more about the kid coming next year than the kids who took him to the Sweet 16. He’ll keep damning Mayo’s accusers, justifying his behavior and forever giving the kid a reason to believe he’ll never be held accountable for anything.

On the eve of USC's Sweet 16 loss to North Carolina, Floyd was standing outside his locker room at the Meadowlands going on and on about Mayo. “Has he made a mistake or two? Yeah. He got into a couple fights. I got into a couple in high school, too. He got a couple T’s, I got a couple of T’s in high school, too. It doesn’t make him a bad kid. It's just the lights are a little brighter on him than a lot of kids.”

Maybe so, but we haven’t heard the last of the relationship between Mayo and Guillory. If you’ve ever followed these things, you know where this is going at USC: investigations into his eligibility, his scrapes with the law, and always, a debate that will rage until he’s out the door at Southern Cal. In the end, unlike Durant and Oden, they’ll wonder if this rent-a-player was worth the trouble.

If USC is still playing a year from now, you’ll probably have your answer.