The late-night bull session had lasted more than three hours, and now the top two basketball recruits in the land—the center from Oregon and the guard from West Virginia—exchanged assassins' smiles over the lukewarm remnants of a pizza in their room at The James hotel in Chicago. It was nearly 4 a.m. on April 4, a few hours after Kevin Love and O.J. Mayo had been named MVPs of their respective teams at the Roundball Classic high school all-star game, and the two friends had traded thousands of words outlining their common dreams: forging Hall of Fame careers, winning NCAA and NBA titles and, as Love recalls with a laugh, "whipping each other's asses when we get to L.A."
But no two words were as deliciously charged as the ones Love spoke to end the evening: "You ready?"
"Man, what do you think?" Mayo replied, cutting the lights. "I'm always ready."
If the story of last year's regular season was Greg Oden and Kevin Durant, transcendent freshmen who flashed like comets through the college game, then the story entering this season is UCLA's Love and USC's Mayo—with an added kick. After all, Oden and Durant occupied distinct orbits, playing in different regions for teams that never met on the court. Imagine that this time the most-talked-about freshmen play in the same city ( Los Angeles) for bitter rivals (the Bruins and the Trojans) in the nation's top conference (the Pac-10). Imagine that their teams will face each other at least twice. Imagine that they are longtime pals who've been battling like a latter-day Larry and Magic ever since they first met in the eighth-grade AAU national championship game.
Imagine, not least of all, the City of Angels turning into a college sports town. "Now that Kobe doesn't know what he's doing, they're going to own the city," says Sonny Vaccaro, the recently retired grassroots hoops guru and founder of the ABCD camps. "You're going to start seeing the Denzels and the Jacks at college games. I can sense it already: [ UCLA-USC] will be a major ticket."
To hear some pundits, in fact, Mayo versus Love represents nothing less than the Clash of Civilizations, college basketball division. It's East versus West; scorer versus passer; new school versus old school; city game versus suburban ball; the 'hood versus Mount Hood. Spend some time with the principals, however, and they seem more like kindred spirits, two more SoCal freshmen with iPhones on their belts, girls on their minds and In-N-Out burgers in their mouths. "We have that common respect," says Love. "People are like, 'O.J.'s way more this, and you're way more that,' and I'm like, 'Come on, man. We might come from different backgrounds, but we are very similar.'"
If one player gets his way, the slogan of the upcoming season will be Love and Basketball. If the other gets his, he'll happily turn every arena into the Mayo Clinic. So when Love and Mayo met again last summer—in a pickup game at UCLA's Student Activities Center with a group that included NBA stars Kevin Garnett, Baron Davis and Sam Cassell—the anticipation in the air was as palpable as their pregame handshake-hug. "O.K., we're ready now," Love told him. "Let's go to work."
OVINTON J'ANTHONY MAYO was 11 years old when he started playing chess at Billy Scott's barbershop, a neighborhood gathering spot in Huntington, W. Va. The game fascinated him almost as much as the one that would start earning him national attention (and his first picture in SI) as a seventh-grader in 2002. Still does, too. "I try to make basketball like a chess game," says Mayo, a 6'5", 205-pound combo guard. "If there's one mistake, one bad move, you want to expose it—on the defensive end, too. It's about knowing what's going on three moves ahead of your opponents."
In terms of scoring, Mayo could play a role for USC that's similar to the one Durant, the first freshman to win player of the year, filled with Texas. The Trojans have one of the top recruiting classes, but the roster is painfully young overall—coach Tim Floyd lost his top three scorers from last season—and Mayo's 32-point outburst in the 96--81 upset loss to Mercer last Saturday may become the norm. Mayo doesn't possess Durant's Plastic Man length or off-the-charts hoops sense, but unlike Durant, a forward who sometimes struggled to receive the ball in the Longhorns' offense, Mayo should find it easier to latch onto the rock as a lead guard.