Taj Gibson was asked again: What's the payoff?
USC loaded its non-conference schedule, throwing in Kansas and Memphis. The Trojans lost to each top-four team by four points, but they emerged upbeat. They said they would grow from the experiences, that the games would help them grind through the Pac-10 – perceived as the country's top conference.
But, where's the payoff?
Last week, at home, they could not keep up with then-No. 4 Washington State's experienced, efficient attack in a 15-point loss.
Saturday, USC travels to Pauley Pavilion for its first 2008 meeting with city rival UCLA, at 12:30 p.m.
"The payoff—," said Gibson, one of the few remaining Trojans who played a meaningful role in last year's Sweet Sixteen run, "—hopefully we get into the NCAA tournament and can show what we can do again, just like last year."
First, USC (10-6, 1-3) needs a winning streak. After dropping their first three games in Pac-10 play, the Trojans topped Washington last weekend, 66-51.
Washington did not win its first conference game until Thursday. On the other hand, No. 4 UCLA (16-1, 4-0) will be USC's fourth top-four opponent of the season.
"The number in front of their name is close to Kansas and Memphis," sophomore guard Daniel Hackett said. "But I don't know if it's going to be a type of game that's similar to Kansas and Memphis. I think UCLA is a rhythm team.
"We just have to get them out of their rhythm and see what we can do."
Gibson said competition from the Jayhawks and Tigers could do little to prepare USC's freshmen for the cross-city rivalry's atmosphere. O.J. Mayo, Davon Jefferson and Angelo Johnson comprise about half of the Trojans' primary rotation.
"If you thought you were a freshman still, you won't be anymore after that game," Gibson said. "That crowd, and being in that historical arena, makes you a different player after you leave. Going in there last year, I never really experienced anything like that."
So, where – again – is the payoff?
"We could take out of those losses the way we play, the way we compete against top teams," Hackett said. "I would say that we've got to bring the same focus and game planning into the UCLA game."
In addition, they've got to bring a little more out of it.
A lot of Love
This year's installment of USC-UCLA has been billed as O.J. Mayo-Kevin Love since at least the fall, when Sports Illustrated featured both players on the cover, for its college basketball preview edition.
Asked to recall the image, Mayo said, "He was posting me up." With a smile, he added, "Offensive foul."
Mayo, USC's freshman guard, leads the Trojans with 19.9 points per game. Love, UCLA's freshman center, leads the Bruins with 16.8 points and 10.2 rebounds.
Love stands at 6-foot-10, 260 pounds – an inch taller and 35 pounds heavier than Gibson, USC's biggest starter.
Mayo struck up a friendship with Love when they played together on youth all-star teams.
"He's still the same," Mayo said. "Dominating the boards, putting the defenders at mercy with both shoulders, shooting over either shoulder, doing a great job outletting passes and getting his guards transition buckets."
The Trojans are aware that USC-UCLA is more than Mayo-Love. Gibson, who played Amateur Athletic Union ball with Love, tossed out the cliché that it would take five men to beat the Bruins. He quickly corrected himself.
"It could take seven, who knows?" he said with a smile.
Along with guarding Love, Gibson has to worry about UCLA's 6-8 forwards, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and Alfred Aboya. Gibson fouled out of USC's five-point loss at Pauley last season, a game that the Trojans led most of the way.
USC also held an edge through much of last year's game at the Galen Center, before UCLA took a late lead and won by a point, 65-64.
The close losses "helped us out in the NCAA (tournament)," Gibson said.
A couple of close wins could help them get back in.
Make sure to check out reporter Jonathan Kay's live blog from every home USC basketball game on the TroyHoops.com basketball message board.