If there is one irrefutable lesson from the 2021 NCAA men’s basketball tournament so far, it’s that toppling top-seeded Gonzaga is going to require one hell of an effort.
But if there is one lesson from the Sweet 16, it might just be that USC is one of a few teams capable of the Herculean feat.
The sixth-seeded Trojans overwhelmed No. 7 seed Oregon on Sunday night, and advanced to the Elite Eight with an 82-68 victory.
Evan Mobley, its star freshman, put on a show. He punctuated it, and the win, with the dunk of the tournament.
The Trojans will get exactly 43 hours of rest. On Tuesday, they’ll meet the tournament’s overwhelming favorite. And if their last two games are any indication, they’re ready for battle.
USC’s zone stifles Oregon
Oregon entered the game still buzzing from a second-round blitz of No. 2 seed Iowa. And ever so briefly, it picked up where it left off, pushing the pace and draining contested 3s late in the shot clock.
“They have five forwards and guards that can all shoot the 3,” USC coach Andy Enfield said postgame. “They can all drive and kick out. So they made some shots early.”
But it quickly became clear that USC posed a different challenge. A tall, long, active, well-drilled, freakishly athletic challenge. A unique challenge that decimated Kansas in the Round of 32, and befuddled the Ducks on Sunday night too.
USC opened in the man-to-man defense that it played roughly 90% of the season. But in the man-to-man, Oregon’s five-out offense pulled Mobley, a 7-foot shot-blocker, away from the rim. Enfield recognized this. He flipped to a zone he’d first taught during preseason camp, but used sparingly over the past four months.
“The zone kept Evan in the middle,” Enfield explained. And it flipped the game.
It swallowed up Oregon’s versatile wings. It threw obstacles into passing lanes, and disrupted rhythm. And when Oregon penetrated the zone, Mobley awaited. The freshman blocked shots, and affected shots, and deterred shots.
The high-flying Ducks had scored 55 points in the first half against Iowa. USC held them to 26. And on the other end, it was delightfully efficient. Mobley and his older brother, Isaiah, towered above their counterparts down low. Out on the perimeter, seniors Isaiah White and Tahj Eaddy each hit a couple 3s.
Of USC’s first 33 points, 16 came in the paint, 15 from beyond the arc, and two from the free throw line. The final two of the 33 closed a 12-0 run, and gave the Trojans a 33-19 lead. They never looked back.
They did go scoreless for a five-minute stretch in the second half, and flirted with allowing Oregon back in the game. But the Ducks never got closer than within nine after halftime. Eaddy drilled a 3 to end the drought, and end any hopes of a comeback.
The Mobleys put on a multi-faceted show
The Mobley brothers only combined for 23 points. But they were arguably the two most important players on the floor. Evan, a soon-to-be top-five NBA draft pick, did a little bit of everything.
Rebounds and dunks? Of course.
Turnaround jumper? Cash.
Between-the-legs dribble to penetrate and dish to his brother for a jam? Sure.
Terrifying posters? My goodness, yes.
Isaiah, a sophomore, was pretty impressive himself. USC occasionally used the brothers’ ball-handling skills to break a tricky Oregon press. Isaiah, on one occasion, went coast-to-coast for a twisting layup – and one.
An Elite Eight battle of titans
The Trojans can’t match up with Gonzaga’s guards. They’ll be underdogs on Tuesday at 7:15 ET when they meet the No. 1 overall seed in the Elite Eight.
But the Zags will need an answer for USC’s size – and for the skill that was on display Sunday night.
The Trojans’ are the tallest and longest team remaining in the tournament, with four starters 6-foot-7 or taller. They’ve emerged from the West region as a one-of-a-kind challenger to the undefeated, untouched favorite. Tuesday evening will pit this season’s best 2-point defense (USC’s) against college basketball’s best 2-point offense ever (Gonzaga’s).
After Sunday’s win, White, the USC senior, was asked about the matchup with Gonzaga.
“I don’t know about what everyone else is saying,” he said. “All I know is that this team is special. And we believe we can beat anybody.”
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