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USC feels good about NCAA tournament seeding after COVID derailed promising 2020

USC coach Andy Enfield speaks with his players during a timeout against Utah.
USC coach Andy Enfield speaks with his players during a timeout against Utah on Thursday. USC was pleased to earn a sixth seed in the NCAA tournament Sunday.
(John Locher / Associated Press)

In the four years since USC last qualified for the NCAA tournament, coach Andy Enfield has endured every manner of Selection Sunday drama. In 2017, the Trojans barely snuck off the bubble and into the First Four as an 11th seed. The next year, they were snubbed in spite of a trip to the Pac-12 tournament final. Then, last season, just as USC hit its stride, the pandemic threw a wrench in its plans, canceling the tournament.

This year, there were no such theatrics for USC. Instead, the Trojans shared a few scoops of ice cream in a Las Vegas hotel conference room ahead of the bracket reveal, knowing full well they belonged in the field. When USC was announced as a sixth seed in the West Region, its highest seeding since its vacated tournament trip in 2008, the lack of surprise was a testament to how far USC had come in its best of eight seasons under Enfield.

“It is nice just to take a step back and realize this group has accomplished a tremendous amount,” Enfield said. “This was a fun day for us. It was a day to reminisce about our season.”

USC will play the Wichita State vs. Drake winner on Saturday at 1:30 p.m. UCLA will face Michigan State in a First Four game on Thursday at 6:57 p.m.

Whether reminiscing is warranted just yet, the wait for this moment, especially after last year’s heartbreak, was certainly long for Enfield and USC. The Trojans will have to wait a few more days still to know their tournament opponent, as Wichita State (16-5) and Drake (25-4) face off in the First Four on Thursday. The winner will face the Trojans as an 11th seed Saturday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, the exact position USC was in during its only tournament run under Enfield.

The pressure on USC’s coach, after a 22-7 season that fell just a few percentage points short of a Pac-12 title, is much more acute now. Buoyed by a freshman 7-footer bound for a top-three selection in the NBA draft, the Trojans enter the tournament with expectations and a roster talented enough to play more than just spoiler. Anything less than a victory or two for USC this March would qualify as a major disappointment.

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“Is there pressure to get to the second weekend?” Enfield said. “Yeah, there’s pressure on every team in the tournament. That’s what March Madness is all about.”

Evan Mobley understands that burden, even if he’s never been here before. USC’s star freshman made clear last week that he’s primed for the postseason spotlight, scoring 52 points, securing 18 rebounds, blocking 10 shots and dishing out five assists over two games at the Pac-12 tournament, taking over in a way he hadn’t all season.

It will take more than just a monumental performance from Mobley for USC to make it out of the first weekend of the tournament. A defense that dragged somewhat over the final few weeks will have to return to form, while the supporting cast around Mobley will have to carry some of the load.

Not since 2007 have the Trojans reached the Sweet 16. This year, it likely will take a win over No. 3 seed Kansas, which is dealing with a cavalcade of COVID-19 issues, to make it to the Sweet 16.

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Any further than that and USC would face the likes of Iowa or Gonzaga, perhaps two of the only teams in the field capable of shutting down Mobley. But that’s exactly the type of test he was looking for when he signed with USC in 2019 as the highest-rated recruit in school history.

“It’s a big stage, and big players have to step up to the challenge,” Mobley said. “I just try to step up to the challenge, do everything I possibly can to help my team win. From now on, it could be our last game. I’m going to treat it that way and try to go all out.”

The freshman should have no problem asserting himself in his first NCAA tournament matchup, no matter whom USC winds up playing. Neither Drake nor Wichita State has a starter taller than 6-8.

That was news to Enfield, who said Sunday afternoon that he knew “nothing about either team.”

“I think Wichita is in Wichita, Kansas, and Drake is somewhere in the Midwest,” Enfield said. “I’d have to get my map out. Are they in Iowa?”

There was no such confusion about where USC belonged this March. But where it will end up, amidst its first tournament appearance in four years, is very much a mystery.

No. 6 USC vs. No. 11 Wichita State/Drake matchup

SATURDAY, 1:30 P.M. PDT (TNT); AT INDIANAPOLIS

How they got here: After a scorching-hot stretch through January and early February, USC has lost four of its last 10 games and was eliminated in the Pac-12 tournament semifinals. The Trojans’ earlier stretch of 13 wins in 14 games was enough to build their resume for the NCAA tournament. Wichita State went 1-1 against Houston, a No.2 seed in the NCAAs, and won the American Athletic Conference regular-season title but lost in the tournament semifinals to Cincinnati. Drake, meanwhile, lost in the final of the Missouri Valley Conference tournament to Loyola Chicago, which beat the Bulldogs twice in three tries.

Last 10 games: USC 6-4; Wichita State 8-2; Drake 7-3

Record vs. NCAA tournament teams: USC 5-5; Wichita State 1-3; Drake 1-2

Best victories/worst losses: A season sweep of UCLA, sealed on a last-second three-pointer for the second straight season, probably feels the sweetest for USC. But a 72-58 win over Oregon on Feb.22 is its best performance on paper. The Trojans’ worst loss came shortly afterward, as USC lost 71-61 on Feb.27 in Salt Lake City to a Utah team that would finish 12-13. A victory over Houston in February marks Wichita State’s best win, while its worst loss was a 20-point defeat at Memphis. For Drake, a victory over Loyola is the most notable part of its resume. A loss at 12-16 Bradley last month … not so much.

Common opponents: None.

USC lineup: Starters — G Tahj Eaddy (13.7 ppg, 2.6 apg), G Drew Peterson (9.9 ppg, 5.0 rpg), G Isaiah White (7.2 ppg, 3.5 rpg), F Isaiah Mobley (9 ppg, 7.4 rpg), C Evan Mobley (16.8, 8.6 rpg). Top reserves — G Ethan Anderson (6.1 ppg, 3.0 apg), F Chevez Goodwin (5.9 ppg, 3.7 rpg), F Max Agbonkpolo (3.7 ppg, 2.7 rpg).

It’s a fact: Wichita State has been to the Sweet 16 twice (2013 and 2015) since USC last made it to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament, while Drake hasn’t won an NCAA tournament game since 1971.


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