To see howimportant forward Taj Gibson had become to the Trojans last season, all that'snecessary is a quick playback of USC's second-half collapse against NorthCarolina in the East Regional semifinals. After Gibson picked up his fourthfoul, with 12:25 left, the Tar Heels dominated inside, cutting the Trojans'10-point lead to one in the nearly four minutes Gibson was off the floor.Southern California was never the same, despite Gibson's best efforts(16¬†points and 12¬†rebounds), and Carolina cruised to victory.
It's a cautionarytale that's worth invoking in the excitement over the arrival of superrecruitguard O.J. Mayo: If the Trojans hope to finish near the top of ahypercompetitive Pac-10, they'll need to rely almost as much on Gibson, a 6'9", 220-pound double double machine. "Taj blocked shots at a higherlevel than any freshman in this school's history," says USC coach TimFloyd. "He can make a 15-footer facing up, but he can also post and passthe ball out of the post. He's driven like O.J. to be as good as he can be, andhe spent all summer working on his strength."
The Trojans maybe a little inexperienced--Floyd lost his top three scorers from lastseason--but their two most important players aren't as young as their classstatus might indicate. Mayo is a 20-year-old freshman, and Gibson is a22-year-old sophomore from Brooklyn who spent two years at a prep school inCalifornia after his hometown school board denied him promotion because itwouldn't accept two years of homeschool credits.
Floyd compareshaving older youngsters with the advantage enjoyed by teams whose players havereturned from Mormon missions; with a brutal first-month schedule USC will needthat maturity from the start. Moreover, "everyone has to be healthy,"says Gibson, who appears to be recovered from a sprained left ankle he sufferedon Oct. 22, "or we could start off 0-4 and hurt our RPI. Anything canhappen." Those three words might be the best slogan available for a teamthat could finish anywhere from first to ninth in the nation's topconference.
, S. Ala.)
Dec. 2 Kansas
Dec. 4 Memphis(in New York City)
Dec. 17 DelawareState
Dec. 22 CalPoly-San Luis Obispo
Dec. 29 UCRiverside
Back-to-back killers against Kansas and Memphis could send the young buttalented Trojans reeling--or soaring. Nor will tests at the other USC (SouthCarolina), against Oklahoma and (potentially) against Southern Illinois at theAnaheim Classic be easy. Coach Tim Floyd says he may have overscheduled,thinking he would have had more ammunition this year. (Paging Nick Young!)
Coach Tim Floyd(3rd year)
Pac-10 record11-7 (T-3rd)
NCAA tournamentSweet 16
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MIDDLE MAN With his massive inside presence, Gibson is ever a threat to double double.