Future NBA players Kevin Love of UCLA and Taj Gibson of USC battle for a rebound… (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles…)
It seems a lifetime ago that Kevin Love and O.J. Mayo appeared together on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
Possibly the two best high school players in the country coming to Los Angeles, Love to UCLA and Mayo to USC and in the fall of 2007, there was SI, rating UCLA second in the nation, USC 15th and suggesting the two best freshmen in the country were here.
Hollywood was where it was at, yet now, with Love and Mayo into their fourth NBA seasons, UCLA and USC get set to play against each other Sunday at the Galen Center and the teams are so irrelevant nationally that there is no conversation, only commiseration.
At least UCLA has shown some recent sparks of life. The Bruins own a modest two-game winning streak. USC has lost five straight and hasn't won a Pac-12 Conference game yet.
But even UCLA players acknowledge that an NCAA bid will come only if the Bruins win the conference tournament. USC players don't even talk about that.
Gus Johnson, who will be calling the game for Fox Sports, said that sometimes when two rivals who are used to much greater success play in the down times, the fierceness factor on the court grows.
"It might add more drama," Johnson said Friday. "Guys don't want to be publicly embarrassed losing to their rival.
"At the beginning of a season teams always set goals. Win a signature out-of-conference game, play well in the conference, be above .500 in your conference, whatever it is. And beat the team you have the biggest rivalry against.
"Sometimes, when all those other goals are gone, coaches and players can still circle that particular game, that rivalry game and get the ultimate concentration and performance out of players."
In 2002-2003, UCLA and USC finished tied for sixth in the Pacific-10 and a year later UCLA finished tied for seventh with USC sixth.
The Bruins finished the 2003 season with a 10-19 record and that got Steve Lavin fired and Ben Howland hired. USC's Henry Bibby lasted until December of the 2004 season when athletic director Mike Garrett abruptly replaced him with an interim coach and then hired Tim Floyd.
Since 2004, UCLA has finished lower than third in the conference once (tied for fifth with USC in 2009-2010) and missed the NCAA tournament once (in 2010). USC was 10th in the league in Floyd's first season and then sixth, but since then the Trojans have been occasionally nationally ranked and in the NCAA tournament every year except for 2010.
And yet, emotions are still obvious with players this year.
Monday night UCLA senior guard Lazeric Jones, who as a junior college transfer has only briefly experienced the rivalry, sent a message on Twitter that he was watching the rebroadcast of a 2002 UCLA-USC game from the Sports Arena.
"It was nuts, it was crazy," he said. "It was really good." Jones noted how impressive it was to see eventual NBA players Earl Watson and Dan Gadzuric on the floor. And USC's Brian Scalabrine, who is still playing in the NBA. "I knew Brian was good," Jones said. "I did not know he was that good."
Jones said he realized how important the USC-UCLA rivalry was when he walked onto the Galen Center court last year, well before tipoff. "I was the only person, by myself, and I got booed. Everyone knew exactly who I was."
USC guard Jio Fontan, who has missed this season because of a knee injury, is eager to contribute to a frantic atmosphere Sunday.
"No matter what the records are," Fontan said, "we believe these are the two biggest teams in the state and it will be crazy. For the players on both sides, the intensity should never be higher."
Howland compared the intensity of UCLA-USC to what he experienced when he coached at Pittsburgh against West Virginia. "But those two teams weren't in the same city, so that makes this different."
For Howland, his most memorable USC-UCLA game was a loss to the Trojans in 2006, his third year.
"After that loss, we were so disappointed, we went out and won 12 in a row. We had beaten them by, like, 30 earlier, then they beat us and it was motivating." In fact, UCLA didn't lose another game after that 2006 loss until its national championship game defeat by Florida.
Fontan said that's how it should be. Even for his Trojans, who are in a downswing. "Momentum can be had," Fontan said. "One game like this. It matters."