Next O.J. era at USC could be short

Posted: March 23, 2007

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - His timing, Tim Floyd said, was better this time. Sometimes, you are just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Other times, you fall into the right place at the right time.

Floyd has fallen into the Sweet 16 with Southern California. If not now, next season, he might fall into the Final Four. The Trojans already have very good young talent. Now, as the result of Floyd taking a phone call from the country's best high school player who decided USC and Los Angeles was the correct place to market himself in his year of college basketball, the Trojans might enter next season with a team that has as much talent as anyone.

Anybody who really thinks college hoops in the BCS conferences is about anything other than money and winning really hasn't been paying attention. Floyd makes no apologies for taking O.J. Mayo's call. Nor does he make any for signing him to a letter of intent. Neither Thad Matta nor Rick Barnes made apologies for taking Greg Oden and Kevin Durant, two one-and-done players who were forced to college by that new NBA rule.

"The kid called and said, 'Coach, I'd like to come to school there,' " Floyd said yesterday. "I said, 'I'd love to have you.' I'm not believing that this is really going to actually happen."

Floyd asked Mayo, a swingman who has been a major national name since starting in high school as a seventh grader in Kentucky and is now back in his native Huntington, W.Va., after a 2-year pit stop in Cincinnati, why he wanted to come to USC.

"He said he wanted to play for a coach that coached in the NBA, wanted to have a transition city to the NBA, wanted to be in a major city so he could learn to live on his own in a city, that he wanted to be able to leave his name on a program," Floyd said. "He didn't want to be the next great player at Duke or Carolina or Kentucky or Ohio State."

Now, depending on your point of view and how much you believe in the NCAA credo of the "student-athlete," this is all completely insane. Or just a sign of the times.

"I never thought I'd see that," Floyd said. "We were surprised . . . I told my wife, 'This will never happen, he's 18, he'll change his mind tomorrow.' But he never did."

According to Floyd, Mayo thought "the marketing aspect of Los Angeles" could help him. He watched what went down with USC football stars Reggie Bush, Matt Leinart and Carson Palmer, each of whom won the Heisman Trophy and parlayed that into major professional cash.

"He thinks differently," Floyd said. "He thinks outside the box."

When it was recently revealed that Mayo wouldn't even give Floyd his cell-phone number during his "recruitment," it really looked like Floyd was being played. It sounded arrogant.

The coach played along, saying "they can't afford it. He's getting phone calls from everybody around the United States."

Whatever that was about, this is about talent. And Floyd does not think the kid is arrogant at all.

"[USC athletic director] Mike Garrett interviewed him and told me he was the most impressive kid we've ever had in this office," Floyd said.

In just his second season at USC, Floyd has his team in the East Regionals, where it will play North Carolina tonight at Continental Airlines Arena. Floyd won at Idaho. He won at New Orleans. He won at Iowa State. He did not win with the Chicago Bulls.

"We are the beneficiaries of walking in with good timing, unlike my days walking into the Chicago Bulls," Floyd said. "My timing wasn't very good there."

No Michael Jordan. No Scottie Pippen. No hope.

The four-season record, right after the six NBA championships, was 49-190 before he was mercifully fired after a 4-21 start to the 2001-02 season. He had no chance. He knew it. Everybody knew it.

"It was the hardest job any coach walked into in the history of pro sports, at least I've been told that by a lot of people," Floyd said. "Given the scars on my [butt] right now, I'd have to agree with it."

After Henry Bibby was fired (which is what happens after you lose at La Salle these days) four games into the 2004-05 season, USC went looking for a new coach while playing out the season under an interim coach. The Trojans hired Rick Majerus. He barely lasted a week before changing his mind. Enter Floyd, whose timing was absolutely perfect.

After playing in the dank Sports Arena for decades, USC finally was taking basketball as seriously as its crosstown rival, UCLA. The Trojans moved into the $147 million, 10,258-seat Galen Center this season. Floyd brought back all the old USC players who had been promised they would play on campus when they were recruited. Had them make a layup in the new place so they could say they played in that on-campus arena that seemed like it would never get built.

"L.A. is the most heavily recruited city in the country," Floyd said. "The potential has always been the talent in the area. There were no facilities. The facility has changed us . . . This staff has not had to go into home visits and start by apologizing or explaining because of what recruiters put in kids' heads."

Floyd looked at USC and saw Florida, the current national champions in football and basketball. Football is obviously there. Basketball is coming.

USC was 17-13 last season. The Trojans are 25-11 now. Three teams from the Pac-10 are still in the NCAA Tournament - regular-season winner UCLA, tournament winner Oregon and USC.

USC is doing all this even after its terrific freshman point guard, Ryan Francis, was killed in a drive-by shooting last spring in Baton Rogue, La., his hometown. It is winning with some really talented upperclassmen, some still-finding-their way underclassmen and freshman point guard Daniel Hackett, who should still be in high school, but graduated early to take Francis' place.

And O.J. is on the way. Now, a cynic might suggest the last O.J. at USC, while yet another Heisman Trophy winner, ultimately did not bring honor and glory on the old alma mater. Floyd is not a cynic.

"Counter to the decisions others around him wanted him to make, he stepped out and said, 'I'm going to go do something that I want to do on my own for the first time in my life,' " Floyd said. "He had extraordinary pressure to go to another school."

But O.J. Mayo is going to USC to play basketball for 1 year in the new building with some very good teammates. He will attend classes at one of America's more prestigious private universities. He also will be expected to help the Trojans win some games. And then, assuming he is as good as everybody thinks he is, he will get on with his life's work.

"I respect this kid," Floyd said. "I've recruited for a long time. They all want to follow the herd, I'm going to be the next great one to go to Duke, to Kentucky."

Floyd thinks Mayo should be able to go directly to the NBA and promises to "kick him out" if he's good enough.

Floyd compared Mayo to a business student who does an internship or a musician who is learning in the college band. Mayo, Floyd said, wanted USC because it has produced so many high-profile athletes.

Many will say Mayo is going to college for the wrong reasons. Or maybe he just looked at the system and tried to find the best way he could benefit from it. *

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