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Isaiah Mobley playing a critical role in USC’s NCAA tournament push

USC's Isaiah Mobley dunks during the Trojans' win over Drake in the first round of the NCAA tournament on Saturday.
(Justin Casterline / Getty Images)

Before his brother sprouted like a beanpole early in high school, soon to evolve into a 7-footer with skills unlike other players his size, Isaiah was once the imposing Mobley. He was the one demanding the ball and demanding attention. He won the majority of their backyard matchups, the more physical of the two siblings, relishing victories over the younger Evan, who would seethe on the court after, shooting alone for hours, determined to come back better and beat his brother.

Somewhere along the line, Evan Mobley became a generational prospect, his future as a top NBA draft pick assured whether or not sixth-seeded USC (23-7) can beat third-seeded Kansas (21-8) on Monday night in Indianapolis to advance to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2007.

For Isaiah Mobley, finding that fit in the Trojans’ offense has been a bit more complicated. But over the course of this postseason, everything seems to be falling into place for the 6-10 sophomore. While Evan is sure to be the focus of their second-round matchup on Monday, the elder Mobley will need to play a critical role if the two brothers hope to continue their tournament run together.

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.

“He doesn’t have to score a lot of points to be effective,” USC coach Andy Enfield said of Isaiah Mobley. “He’s our best defender in the interior. He’s improved dramatically on the defensive end.”

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In the first round, there was no more efficient offensive player on the floor for USC. Isaiah Mobley made six of seven shots, one of which came from long range. He scored 15 points, added five rebounds, and set the tone on the interior during one of the more impressive performances of his two seasons at USC.

“I’ve just been trying to figure out my role, and I feel like finally — it’s a little late — but I really have that role where I can help us consistently,” said Mobley, who’s averaging 9.2 points and 7.3 rebounds this season. “I hoped to carry that out as long as we keep on dancing.”

That role will be essential in slowing down Kansas and its own imposing big man, David McCormack. The 6-10, 265-pound Jayhawks center improved leaps and bounds as a junior, bullying his way onto the All-Big 12 team this season and pacing a Kansas attack that relies heavily on his post presence.

It was McCormack who finally pushed the sluggish Jayhawks past 14th-seed Eastern Washington in the first round. He scored 22 points in 25 minutes off the bench, dominating just two days after arriving in Indianapolis following a COVID-19 diagnosis during the Big 12 tournament.

McCormack said he still had to “shake the rust off” during that 22-point performance. He should have his wind back by Monday, while Jalen Wilson, the Jayhawks’ leading rebounder, is also expected to return from quarantine Monday morning, but will be less than 100%, according to Kansas coach Bill Self.

It’s finally time for USC basketball to turn regular-season greatness into an NCAA tournament dance Los Angeles will never forget.

USC will need both Mobley brothers to contain Kansas on the interior. While Evan Mobley might be a 7-foot shot-blocking machine, he’s still 55 pounds lighter than McCormack, who will assuredly try to outmuscle Mobley underneath.

That’s where Isaiah, at 235 pounds, comes in. Having played McCormack during AAU tournaments, Isaiah is well aware of how active the Jayhawks big man can be. Still the more physical of the two Mobleys, he’ll be crucial to keeping McCormack away from the hoop.

“You have to make sure you know where he is at all times, even when he doesn’t have the ball,” Isaiah Mobley said. “He’s a big dude, so it’s hard to box him out and get those rebounds. It’s going to be a dogfight down there, especially with all that’s on the line.”

Winning that dogfight likely means a better effort on the boards, where a much smaller Drake lineup outrebounded USC on Saturday. A similar result on Monday could mean a trip back to Southern California.

But as Isaiah Mobley’s confidence continues to grow heading into the second round, so too does USC’s chances of a special tournament run.

“When we’re all confident, I don’t think anyone in the country can beat us,” Isaiah said.


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