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Evan Mobley will be the center of attention when USC and UCLA renew rivalry

USC forward Evan Mobley drives to the basket against Washington State on Jan. 16.
USC forward Evan Mobley drives to the basket against Washington State on Jan. 16. Mobley likely will see plenty of attention from UCLA’s defense on Saturday.
(Ringo H.W. Chiu / Associated Press)

He is the crux of every game plan, the focus of every opposing defense, the budding freshman star at the top of every draft board, but every now and again, Evan Mobley needs a nudge to remind him.

The soft-spoken, 7-footer is still figuring out how to be the center of attention at USC, still learning how to dominate paints packed with defenders set on stopping him, like they will be again Saturday night when No. 21 UCLA and USC meet at Galen Center for the first time this season. The rest of the Trojans, in turn, are still learning what it means for everything to revolve around a star.

That’s a conundrum UCLA coach Mick Cronin might happily inherit. There are no stars in sight in UCLA’s starting lineup, after five-star signee Daishen Nix spurned UCLA for the G League before the season and guard Chris Smith suffered a season-ending knee injury last month. Instead, the Pac-12-leading Bruins have done it with careful balance this season, holding it together with a combination of resilience, late-game savvy, and Scotch tape.

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The conflicting approaches will clash Saturday, with higher stakes than either team has faced this season. USC (14-3, 8-2 Pac-12) has won nine of its last 10. UCLA (13-3, 9-1) has won eight of its last nine. The winner will leave with at least a share of the lead in a conference where nearly every other team has stumbled over the last several weeks.

When Jonah Mathews hit a stunning buzzer-beater to beat UCLA in their last meeting, Mobley was in the building, watching excitedly from the stands. He’ll be front and center Saturday, when the Bruins try everything to slow him down.

“Some double him on the catch,” USC coach Andy Enfield said. “Some don’t double him at all and just have their guards try to help in the lane when he puts the ball on the floor in the post or mid-post. Some will send their opposite big, like Stanford doubled him big-on-big.”

That special attention, Mobley said, caught him a bit flat-footed at first. Colorado pushed him around down low in December. When Utah packed the paint against him in early January, Mobley finished the game without a field-goal attempt.

“You can’t let them catch it too close to the rim and get to their strong hand or they’re just going to score on you,” Cronin said. “So there’s a lot of ways to try to do it.”

The pandemic altered college water polo teams’ schedules, meaning coaches at USC and UCLA face twice the amount of work for the next few months.

After the Trojans’ most recent loss to Oregon State, when Mobley receded from view for long stretches, Enfield sat him down and rolled the tape of his timidity in the paint. He challenged Mobley to be more assertive.

In the three games since that film session, Mobley is averaging 21 points and 11 rebounds. He’s also gotten to the free-throw line 25 times over that span, as defenses have struggled to stay in front of him off the dribble.

“I have to stay focused and not start coasting midgame,” Mobley said. “I just have to attack and go start to finish. They want me to dominate the paint.”

Enfield said that he has called more isolation plays for Mobley than any other player he’s coached. But the domination expected of Mobley requires at least a smidgen of space to operate, and at times that’s been in short supply.

The Trojans boast the second-best scoring offense in the Pac-12, behind only Arizona, but are hitting just a third of their three-point shots, underscoring just how much they rely on Mobley inside to make the offense go.

UCLA guard Jake Kyman shoots against Oregon State on Jan. 30.
(Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

UCLA has no such problem finding its rhythm from long range. The Bruins are the second-best three-point shooting team in the Pac-12, with four guards regularly spacing the floor and capable of hitting from deep. Four starters are scoring in double figures on average, while 6-9 Cody Riley has provided a physical presence inside.

“Their balance offensively is what’s made them so successful,” Enfield said.

USC has been at its best when it has found some semblance of balance too. It just hasn’t always come so easy. Tahj Eaddy has been USC’s most consistent playmaker on the perimeter, scoring just under 13 points per game. The rest have proven capable, but not exactly reliable.

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So it’ll more than likely be up to Mobley to settle into an even brighter spotlight Saturday, while Cronin leans on his team’s balance to slow a player he casually compared to Lakers star Anthony Davis. The conference may ride on how each responds.

“Any time I see an opportunity, I try to take it and seize the moment,” Mobley said. “I don’t try to put too much pressure on myself.”

Times staff writer Ben Bolch contributed to this story.

USC UP NEXT

VS. UCLA

When: Saturday, 7 p.m.

Where: Galen Center

On the air: TV: ESPN; Radio: 570, 790.

Update: The stakes are high in the season’s first meeting between L.A.'s crosstown rivals. UCLA is clutching to a narrow lead in the Pac-12, while USC is hoping a victory over its first ranked opponent might propel it to conference supremacy. More than likely, it’ll ride on how Mobley responds in his most high-pressure game yet.


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