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Column: Potent USC has started what should be a magical NCAA tournament run

USC coach Andy Enfield watches play against Drake during the second half March 20, 2021.
USC coach Andy Enfield looks on against Drake on Saturday in Indianapolis. The Trojans won 72-56 and advanced to a second-round matchup against Kansas. “This meant a lot to our program,” Enfield said.
(Paul Sancya / Associated Press)

This town’s lingering sports secret was revealed on a national stage Saturday amid a flurry of squeaking shoes, stifling elbows and screams.

USC really does have a basketball team.

A further truth emerged during the Trojans’ smart and skilled 72-56 victory over feisty Drake in the first round of the NCAA men’s tournament at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.

USC has a whale of a basketball team.

This team is gifted enough to advance to the Sweet 16, savvy enough to reach the Elite Eight and perhaps even tough enough to find the Final Four.

Evan Mobley had 17 points and 11 rebounds, and USC opened the gap in the second half to beat Drake 72-56 in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

Yeah, you read that right. This victory advances USC into a second-round game Monday against Kansas, a team that has pinned it with seven consecutive losses. But this is a COVID-19-depleted Jayhawks team that barely survived its first-round game with 14th-seeded Eastern Washington, allowing 84 points and once trailing by 10.

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“We didn’t look very good at all,” Kansas coach Bill Self said afterward. “They were better than us.”

So are the Trojans, who, with a victory, would advance to a Sweet 16 game against probably Iowa, whose size advantage with 6-foot-11 center Luka Garza would be nullified by the tallest team in this tournament.

Next up, Gonzaga, and, really, who have the unbeaten Zags played? The Pac-12 has stunningly proved its mettle with several early tournament victories. USC is more tested and can win this game.

This all admittedly sounds crazy, USC advancing to its first Sweet 16 since 2007, its first Elite Eight since 2001 and its first Final Four in 67 years.

But on Saturday, the Trojans were crazy focused and crazy intense and crazy good.

Updates, scores and results from Sunday’s second-round games at the NCAA men’s basketball tournament in Indiana.

The sixth-seeded Trojans could have crumbled against the devil-may-care Bulldogs bunch that was seeded 11th and earlier this week won its first NCAA tournament game in 50 years. USC could have wilted in front of Drake’s wild shots, retreated from Drake’s lunging defenders and fallen into the trap that has already swallowed so many tournament favorites.

In the final four minutes of the first half, this game was tied. At halftime, the Trojans only led by three. With six minutes left in the game, Drake closed the gap to seven.

USC didn’t blink. It didn’t blanch. The transfer-laden group actually resembled the better days of another Trojans program that gets all the attention. They fought on.

Check out a tough defense that forced Drake into 19 misses during one chilling span of 21 shots. Check out an unselfish offense that dished out 20 assists amid 29 baskets. Check out the consecutive three-pointers by veterans Drew Peterson and Tahj Eaddy that put the game away in those final six minutes.

And goodness, get a load of Evan Mobley, the 7-foot freshman who will surely be selected in the top three of this spring’s NBA draft, a fearsome presence inside — 17 points, 11 rebounds, three blocks — dominating everywhere and everyone.

You want heartstrings? He overshadowed sibling Isaiah Mobley, who helped USC pull away at the start of the second half, beginning with a blocked shot, then a three-pointer, then later sandwiching a layup around two successful hooks. Isaiah was the second-leading scorer with 15. Little brother was so proud.

Highlights from USC’s win over Drake in the first round of the NCAA tournament on Saturday.

“We both had great games. ... We’re going to cherish this win,” Evan said. “But we can’t dwell on it too long because we’ve got other games coming up.”

Afterward, I asked the quiet kid who went to high school in Temecula whether it was important for USC to use this opportunity to finally create a local Trojans brand.

“I feel like it’s very important,” he said. “This year we’ve done great so far, so we’re just going to keep taking it game by game and hopefully make it as far as possible.”

I asked coach Andy Enfield the same question, and he went to the stat sheet.

“We have 45 wins the last two years, which is third in the country behind Baylor and Kansas,” he said, later adding, “So yeah, after a two-year break, this meant a lot to our program and our team and our players and coaching staff because no one got to participate last year in this tournament.”

The Trojans were good enough to make some noise last season, but the pandemic ended their hopes. They could have caused a ruckus a couple of other times during Enfield’s eight years here, but, for a variety of reasons, they have yet to reach the second weekend during his tenure. Certainly, they have recently had great regular-season numbers, but now they need to do it in March.

It says here, this is Enfield’s best team and their best chance to make an impact since Henry Bibby stormed down the sidelines and nearly into the Final Four. The Trojans need success here to shine a light on a sleeping program that should have every Los Angeles recruiting advantage while playing in the coolest college gym in the city. They need this to begin the process of digging out from under the deep roots of UCLA.

They don’t get many chances to compete on the same national radar as the Bruins, but this is one of those chances. If Saturday is any indication, the Trojans are up to the task, beginning Monday against Kansas.

“They’re a great team, we’re a great team,” said Mobley.

He’s half right. The second half. In a town where they’re barely remembered, it’s finally time for USC basketball to turn that greatness into something Los Angeles will never forget.


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