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UCLA has seen their last two seasons end at the Final Four, but each time, they left empty-handed at the hands of Florida.
This year, the Bruins are once again favored to reach college basketball’s final weekend but this time, they hope to be the last ones cutting down the nets.
Meanwhile across town, USC surprised everyone last season by setting a school record for victories (25) and advancing to the Sweet 16 before losing to North Carolina.
But despite losing three starters who averaged 44 points per game, the Trojans have plenty of optimism thanks to their strong recruiting class, ranked No. 1 by ESPN.com and led by ballyhooed guard/superstar-in-training O.J. Mayo.
As both teams start their seasons this weekend—UCLA at home against Portland State on Friday, USC at home against Mercer on Saturday—there is an excitement in the air as basketball in Los Angeles couldn’t be any better right now.
The Bruins, ranked No. 2 in the Associated Press preseason poll, return three starters, only losing All-American forward Arron Afflalo, now playing with the Detroit Pistons.
With only one senior in center Lorenzo Mata-Real, the team will be led by junior point guard Darren Collison, a preseason All-American and candidate for PAC-10 player of the year, and junior forward Josh Shipp, who spoke on the difference in their leadership styles at the Pac-10 media day.
“Darren’s the more vocal one and I’m the more quiet one who leads off the court by example but we’re both going to fill that role,” Shipp said.
Coach Ben Howland also mentioned that junior forward Luc Richard Mbah a Moute would also step up as a leader, joking that he would be a natural fit due to him being as a prince in his native village of Bia Messe in Cameroon.
The Bruins will also have a solid bench with sophomore guard Russell Westbrook amd junior forward Alfred Aboya. Howland stated that Westbrook and Collison could share the backcourt at times this year.
Recruiting wise, the Bruins pulled off a major score in center Kevin Love, the national high school player of the year, as well as Sentinel Player of the Year Chace Stanback, who led Fairfax to the City and State championship last year.
USC, ranked No. 18 in the AP poll, may have “lost more than anybody in the Pac-10” according to coach Tim Floyd, but they still have great pieces remaining. Leading the charge will be sophomore forward Taj Gibson, who started every game last year and his dominating post presence helped him make the conference All-Freshman team.
At 21, Gibson is older than your average sophomore, but he brings maturity and experience to a team of mostly sophomores and freshmen.
“Coach Floyd wants me to be vocal leader on and off the court and that’s what I’m doing,” Gibson said.
The only other returning starter is point guard Daniel Hackett, who will be evaluated Friday after suffering a broken jaw in practice in September.
But the Trojans’ recruiting class is what everyone has looked forward to almost a year. The crown jewel, of course, is Mayo, who was Scout.com’s No. 1 ranked player in his class and is the most hyped Trojan recruit since Inglewood High star Harold “Baby Jordan” Miner came to campus in 1989.
Labeled as a can’t miss-NBA prospect since the seventh grade, Mayo brings an instant superstar presence to the Trojans and whether or not he stays for more than one year, he is sure to have a wide impact on the program.
Other key freshmen include Davon Jefferson, a 6-foot-8 forward out of Lynwood who spent last year at the Patterson School in North Carolina, and Angelo Johnson, a 5-foot-11 true point guard from Stoneridge Prep.
Jefferson should contribute immediately as an impact post player with a versatile offensive game while Johnson will get major minutes off the bench.
At the conference media day last Thursday, UCLA was a near-unanimous pick to win the Pac-10, winning 33 of a possible 34 first place votes, while the Trojans were picked to finish sixth.
But rankings won’t matter as nearly all of the coaches raved about the depth of the conference, which will be the toughest in America this year. Washington coach Lorenzo Romar, who has been affiliated with the conference since 1979, said that he has never seen the conference this deep in his career.
“We feel there’s a pro prospect on every single team in the conference,” Oregon Coach Ernie Kent said.
At least eight players could go in the first round this year, which would tie a conference record for draft picks set in 1995 by the ACC.
But before all the draft speculation heats up, there is still this season to worry about. UCLA has a relatively easy pre-conference schedule while USC has to deal with games against Oklahoma, No. 3 Kansas and No. 4 Memphis as well as a possible match-up with No. 24 Southern Illinois in November.
All in all, it will be a fantastic year for college basketball in L.A. and with Love and Mayo possibly using this year to audition for the NBA, both the Bruins and Trojans will be must-see-TV for the next five months.