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3/21/2008 12:55:00 AM
Walker Breaks Out Of The Shadows
Bill Walker scored 22 points in beating high school teammate O.J. Mayo.
Jamie Squire/Getty Images
OMAHA, Neb. -- Kansas State forward Bill Walker admitted that he took note of the socks his old running mate from Huntington, W.V., USC's O.J. Mayo, had been wearing in what will likely be the Trojan guard's final game as a collegian. They had NBA logos on them, which made for some rather overt visual foreshadowing. "They were nice socks," Walker said, but he had a reason for not commenting on them to Mayo while they were on the court. "I was too scared I might have made him mad, and he might have run off some buckets."
Instead, Walker was content to watch Mayo score his average (20 points), but not contribute any clutch late buckets to rescue the sixth-seeded USC from a first-round demise at the hands of the 11th-seeded Wildcats, 80-67. In a game that Walker said everyone in hardscrabble Huntington had been watching, "if they had a TV set," they saw an unexpected storyline develop: While Mayo and K-State's Michael Beasley, who will both be top-10 picks in April's NBA draft, combined for just 12 points at halftime, Walker had exploded for 17.
The stocky forward who had played his prep career in the shadow of Mayo at Cincinnati's North College Hill, and had been playing his redshirt freshman year in the shadow of Beasley's All-America show, had simultaneously stepped out of both on Thursday night. And by doing so, Walker engineered the day's lone victory by a double-digit seed -- a result that could have easily gone the other way had the 'Cats not weathered a few early whistles.
Only four minutes and 15 seconds had elapsed in the game when Beasley was whistled for his second foul, jockeying for position on an offensive rebound. The 26.5-points, 12.4-rebounds-per-game horse that K-State had ridden to the NCAAs was headed to the pine, but, as he said, "Bill stepped up. We needed it. He was our spark tonight."
Walker scored 12 of his 17 first-half points from that moment on, ensuring that the 'Cats did not crumble as they had done so many times earlier this season while Beasley rested. There was a reason, after all, that a team with the likely No. 1 pick in next year's draft -- as well as another first-rounder in Walker -- had finished just 20-11. As talented as K-State is, said Walker, "we haven't produced when Mike goes down." In the biggest stage of their freshman years, Walker, as well as point guard Jacob Pullen (11 points, five assists) and Ron Anderson (10 points, eight boards) produced on Thursday. And first-year coach Frank Martin, who was once viewed as a questionable successor to the one-and-done Bob Huggins, masterfully managed substitutions to keep Beasley on the floor for so many possessions that he still finished with his 27th double-double of the season (23 points, 11 rebounds).
USC, meanwhile, saw its season end with none of Mayo's supporting cast stepping up to save an NCAA tournament game that spiraled out of control late in the first half. Forwards Taj Gibson (10 points, nine rebounds) and Davon Jefferson (15 points, six boards) both fouled out while failing to contain Beasley on the blocks. Point guard Daniel Hackett, who had been the Trojans' guiding force since returning from a back injury in late February, had only two assists against three turnovers. After Mayo scored five early points in the second half, including a steal for a layup -- plus a free-throw -- at the 13:07 mark that gave USC its first advantage since the early minutes, K-State erased that lead for good within 27 seconds.
Now K-State moves on to face a Wisconsin team that boasts the nation's most efficient defense, but does not have a direct answer, athletically, to either Beasley or Walker. Might the 'Cats be the only No. 11 to pull off a first-day upset, and the only double-digit seed to reach the Sweet 16? And will Walker, whom Mayo graciously called "a great player," become one of the breakout stars of this NCAA tournament? All of that is well within the realm of possibility.
As for Mayo, he declined to address inquiries about him turning pro, saying, "I don't think that's necessary right now. I'm really accepting questions only on tonight's game." To find an answer, it was only necessary to look the logos above the tops of his shoes. In the midst of a melancholy USC locker room scene, when asked if the NBA socks were a regular fashion statement, or merely something unveiled for this game, Mayo's serious gaze turned into a sly smile. It was as if he knew exactly what his questioner was getting at.
"That's not why we've had the success that we've had in college, by marketing individuals. The NBA has done that, and I think they've been successful. But they're two totally different marketing schemes, and if we fall into the one the NBA uses, we fall a distance second in our product, a distant second. Because if you're marketing someone for one year and then they go, it's just the next new person." -- Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, in December 2007
OMAHA, Neb. -- USC-Kansas State. Coach K would not approve of this game, or at least not approve of how it's being presented to the college basketball public. Any time this 6-versus-11 showdown is mentioned as the best first-round pairing in the 2008 NCAA tournament bracket, it's not because the Trojans and Wildcats happen to be top-20 teams in adjusted defensive efficiency. That matters, but it's not what drives CBS' TV ratings.
USC-Kansas State is important because of the two kids who warmly embraced on Wednesday afternoon outside the Wildcats' locker room in the Qwest Center. O.J. Mayo stood at the end of a hallway and bellowed, "Mike!" --interrupting an impromptu Michael Beasley news conference that had developed against one wall. Beasley, in turn, yelled, "Juice!" and then broke away from a phalanx of TV cameras to exchange hugs with his fellow freshman phenom. They spoke briefly, but it was about a trivial subject -- their various hotel assignments -- and then parted ways. Thursday they will face off for the right to advance to the second round of their first NCAA tournament. By next week Mayo and Beasley -- as well as possibly K-State's Bill Walker and USC's Davon Jefferson -- could both officially be gone from college basketball, out of school and beginning preparation for the NBA draft. As expected, one-and-done.
Their coaches take the anti-Krzyzewski stance on the issue. Wouldn't you, if Beasley had just averaged 26.5 points and 12.4 rebounds -- and put up 26 double-doubles -- for your team? Or if Mayo had averaged 20.8 points and 4.6 boards for your team -- and increased your home attendance by more than 4,000 per game? K-State's Frank Martin is certainly willing to accept the tradeoff. "Look at what they've both done for their respective schools. Look at the attention that Michael Beasley and Bill Walker and the rest of our freshmen have brought to our program over the past year. We've set school records for being on national television this year. We're sitting here in the NCAA tournament. I mean, there's a reason why that's all taking place: it's because of the level of players that we have."
USC's Tim Floyd is similarly fine with the situation: "I think that has been the excitement about this year. If we're going to look back on this year, we're going to say it was the year of the freshmen. And understand that we're seeing guys that up until a year ago, with Oden and Durant, that we would not have seen from 1995 on, that would have been in the league without a doubt." (He did, however, offer one caveat: "It will be a detriment if and when O.J. leaves if he's not academically eligible and cost us a scholarship. That would be something that would make me review whether or not to give another guy like this an opportunity.")
You get the feeling that Floyd wouldn't turn down the second coming of Mayo, though, considering he already has another probable one-and-done blue-chipper -- L.A. guard Demar Derozan -- signed for next year's recruiting class. Coaches will beg for the commitment of the next Beasley, and the media will once again be whipped into a frenzy when he meets the next Mayo in an NCAA tournament game. Surely these players would benefit from another season in college, and so would the college game if it were able to market them -- rather than its coaches -- over the long-term. But even in their state as one-year rentals, it cannot be denied that Beasley and Mayo are highly intriguing characters. Each is the rare player who can step on the court as a true freshman and already be more talented than 99 percent of his peers, and with whom comes a rare kind of urgency: they will get one -- and only one -- shot to play in the NCAA tournament before they jump to the NBA Draft lottery.
Thursday, of course, is neither the first nor the last time Beasley and Mayo will meet on a basketball floor, or outside a locker room. They've known each other, Beasley said, since the age of 14, and he calls Mayo a "close friend." They played twice on the AAU circuit, once in high school, and once in the McDonald's All-America game, with Beasley winning all four times. This summer, when he traveled to Los Angeles to visit family, Beasley played pickup ball with Mayo and some of the Trojans, and said, "They took me in like I was family." And when the brackets were announced on Sunday, Beasley immediately sent a text message to Mayo. "I asked him if he was ready," Beasley said. "And he asked me the same thing."
"I said, 'Definitely.' Why wouldn't I be? This could be our last game. I'm going to fight as much as I can to keep him off."
Next year around this time, they could be having that conversation from different, distant locales, perhaps Miami and New York, in the lead-up to a meaningless NBA contest. And while that sad reality, from one standpoint, could be fodder for the argument against hyping them, it also reminds us of something: This is also our only chance to see Beasley and Mayo on college basketball's biggest stage. Try as we might to be purists, and resist giving it our full attention, it will be impossible not to watch.