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There’s plenty of Magic left in the NCAA tournament

The 2018 Compton Magic team celebrates a title in Cabo San Lucas.
The 2018 Compton Magic team celebrates a title in 2018 in Cabo San Lucas. The coach of the team, Etop Udo-Ema, third from left, had several players who are currently in the Sweet 16: Isaiah Mobley, fourth from right, Jarod Lucas, third from right, Evan Mobley, second from right, and Johnny Juzang, front. Onyeka Okongwu, formerly of USC, is shown on the far right.
(Courtesy of Etop Udo-Ema)

While the college hoops world slept on the Pac-12, dismissing its NCAA tournament hopes before its five tickets were even punched this March, Etop Udo-Ema knew better than to doubt those Magic Boyz.

As the founder and CEO of Compton Magic, one of the most successful AAU programs in the nation, Udo-Ema had seen his share of stellar summer hoops teams. But there was something special about that 17-and-under squad from 2018, how they yearned for the biggest of stages, and here, waiting for their own March moments, were four of the team’s starting five, each destined for major roles on Pac-12 teams few expected to last past Sunday.

Sure enough, as Oregon State opened its Cinderella run and UCLA clawed its way from the First Four and USC beat down blue-blooded Kansas, putting the Pac-12 on an unlikely pedestal ahead of this week’s Sweet 16, those Magic Boyz made an indelible mark on the conference’s early success. The Mobley brothers, Evan and Isaiah, carried USC to its first Sweet 16 since 2007. UCLA’s Johnny Juzang poured in 67 points over three games, the best scoring stretch of his collegiate career to date. And Oregon State’s Jarod Lucas, the least touted of the four, proved essential in upsets over Tennessee and Oklahoma State, scoring 29 combined and pacing the Beavers from three-point range.

“We were playing the best teams in the country every weekend [in 2018] and beating the [bleep] out of everybody,” Udo-Ema said. “Those kids are all in college now. So why would anyone think that’s going to change?”

It’s been three years since that Compton Magic team left its lasting imprint on the AAU scene, winning 46 of 48 games on its way to a mythical AAU national championship. But the bond between them remains strong.

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All four in the tournament have watched each other’s seven collective wins from their own hotel rooms in Indianapolis. They’ve kept in close contact through a group text thread that also includes the fifth member of that starting five, former Trojan center and sixth overall pick, Onyeka Okongwu.

“We had chemistry,” Evan Mobley said. “It’s why we did amazing things. We all started with Compton Magic from Day 1. We played together all the way up, and that really helped us.”

In an exclusive interview with the Times, Larry Scott, the outgoing Pac-12 commissioner, says it’s time to show ‘grace’ to the selection committee.

Few AAU squads stuck together like they did. The Mobleys were with the program since before high school. Juzang and Lucas and the others joined ahead of ninth grade and never left. Some top prospects bounced to more than one AAU program in a single year; the Magic kept its entire starting five intact for four.

“We weren’t just this slopped-together AAU team,” Udo-Ema said. “We were a team.”

The continuity was almost as rare as the talent. In the frontcourt, there was Okongwu, a 6-9 lottery pick, Evan Mobley, a 7-footer bound for the top three of the upcoming draft, and Isaiah Mobley, a five-star forward finally finding his stride this March. Their length and defensive prowess was so impossible to counter that coaches regularly instructed the team’s guards to let opposing players blow past to try and score on its trio of gigantic NBA-bound bigs.

“It didn’t exactly help me defensively,” Lucas jokes. “But that was our game plan, and it worked.”

USC forward Evan Mobley and Isaiah Mobley watch against Kansas.
USC forward Evan Mobley (4) and Isaiah Mobley (3) watch against Kansas during the second half of the second round of the NCAA tournament in Indianapolis on Monday.
(Paul Sancya / Associated Press)

Few could contend with them offensively, either, as no one player was expected to carry the load.

“Everybody would probably tell you they were the alpha dog,” Juzang said, with a laugh.

Oddly enough, it was often Isaiah Mobley who initiated the offense, roaming the perimeter like a 6-10 point-forward to leave space for Okongwu and his brother down low. Any additional attention paid to their way usually left Juzang or Lucas open from the perimeter. Or Isaiah Mobley would just pull up on his own.

So as Isaiah exploded for four straight three-pointers in the Trojans’ 34-point win over Kansas on Sunday night, it felt to Udo-Ema like a return to Isaiah’s roots. He wonders if a strong finish to this tournament could propel him into the upcoming draft along with Evan.

“He was the MVP of everything then,” Udo-Ema said of Isaiah. “He was the guy having a meteoric rise.”

UCLA's Johnny Juzang is defended by Abilene Christian's Coryon Mason and Reggie Miller.
UCLA’s Johnny Juzang is defended by Abilene Christian’s Coryon Mason, left, and Reggie Miller during the first half of the second round of the NCAA tournament in Indianapolis on Monday.
(Mark Humphrey / Associated Press)

That summer, the Magic burned through the ranks of Adidas AAU programs, losing just twice — once on a buzzer beater with two starters out and again when the Mobleys missed a half while stuck in traffic. Still, there was talk they hadn’t played top competition. So Udo-Ema helped set up a game with Nike’s top AAU team, Team Takeover, to put to rest any concerns. A mythical AAU national championship was on the line.

The matchup between shoe companies was unprecedented. Top college coaches and NBA players in town for Summer League packed the Bishop Gorman gym in Las Vegas. Rockets guard Victor Oladipo, an alum of Team Takeover, sat on the opposite bench.

The parents of UCLA basketball players have come to the NCAA tournament to watch and communicate with their sons, even if it’s from behind a glass door.

“It was a crazy atmosphere,” Evan Mobley said. “Literally anyone you could think of in the basketball world was there.”

They all watched as Team Takeover closed the gap late and forced overtime. But in the final minutes, Isaiah Mobley stepped just outside the arc and sunk a three-pointer in stride. The mythical bragging rights would soon be theirs. No one has played an intra-shoe championship since.

“If you ask me, I believe we’re the best team that’s ever played AAU basketball,” Lucas said.

The four are still a long ways from lasting glory in this NCAA tournament. But as the Sweet 16 awaits this weekend, there’s still plenty of time for more magic ahead.
Times staff writer Ben Bolch contributed to this report.


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