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To see how important forward Taj Gibson had become to the Trojans last season, all that's necessary is a quick playback of USC's second-half collapse against North Carolina in the East Regional semifinals. After Gibson picked up his fourth foul, 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 cautionary tale that's worth invoking in the excitement over the arrival of superrecruit guard O.J. Mayo: If the Trojans hope to finish near the top of a hypercompetitive 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 higher level than any freshman in this school's history," says USC coach Tim Floyd. "He can make a 15-footer facing up, but he can also post and pass the ball out of the post. He's driven like O.J. to be as good as he can be, and he spent all summer working on his strength."
The Trojans may be a little inexperienced-- Floyd lost his top three scorers from last season--but their two most important players aren't as young as their class status might indicate. Mayo is a 20-year-old freshman, and Gibson is a 22-year-old sophomore from Brooklyn who spent two years at a prep school in California after his hometown school board denied him promotion because it wouldn't accept two years of homeschool credits.
Floyd compares having older youngsters with the advantage enjoyed by teams whose players have returned from Mormon missions; with a brutal first-month schedule USC will need that maturity from the start. Moreover, "everyone has to be healthy," says Gibson, who appears to be recovered from a sprained left ankle he suffered on Oct. 22, "or we could start off 0-4 and hurt our RPI. Anything can happen." Those three words might be the best slogan available for a team that could finish anywhere from first to ninth in the nation's top conference.
*HIGH SCHOOL STATS
Nov. 10 Mercer (L 96-81)
Nov. 15 at The Citadel
Nov. 17 at South Carolina