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Big man Evan Mobley likely will be huge factor for USC in its bid to upset Gonzaga

USC forward Evan Mobley grabs a rebound in front of Oregon guard Chris Duarte.
USC’s Evan Mobley grabs a rebound in front of Oregon’s Chris Duarte during the Trojans’ 82-68 win in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament on Sunday in Indianapolis.
(Jeff Roberson / Associated Press)

Evan Mobley is the most imposing player still standing in this NCAA tournament, a surefire top-three NBA draft pick with prowess in the paint and relentless rim protection, capable of bending any game to his will. But as USC drubbed Drake in the first round, crushed Kansas in the second and rolled over Oregon on its way to the Elite Eight for the first time in two decades, the Trojans haven’t needed their 7-footer in a starring role.

Of course, Mobley still dominated defensively and passed deftly out of double teams, his presence alone enough to unravel opposing game plans. On Sunday, he put an innocent Oregon freshman on a poster with a thunderous two-handed slam. But through three games, in which he has averaged a mere 12.3 points, USC hasn’t needed the freshman’s full complement of superpowers.

If there has ever been a time for the Trojans’ star to take over, though, it’s Tuesday, when USC faces off with Gonzaga, college basketball’s equivalent of the Avengers, in perhaps the most consequential game in program history.

No two tournament teams have been more dominant than USC and Gonzaga. In their quest to become the first undefeated champion since Indiana in 1976, the Bulldogs have won their first three tournament games by an average of more than 25 points. The sixth-seeded Trojans, who haven’t been to the Final Four since 1954, have nearly matched that pace, winning by an average of more than 21.

Both have relied on balance to rout the opposition. But while Gonzaga and its trio of All-Americans have ridden that approach to a perfect 29-0 record this season, winning all but one of those games by double digits, USC (25-7) has just recently found its stride. A month ago, no one would have anticipated the Trojans, who ranked among the worst three-point shooting teams in the Pac-12, knocking down almost 51% of their attempts from deep during the first three rounds.

“They’ve been coming at people from a lot of different directions,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said of the Trojans. “They’ve been shooting the three-ball incredibly well. The guards have really stepped up. But all the while, you have to pay a lot of attention to both Mobley brothers [Evan and Isaiah]. That’s the dilemma you face defensively.”

USC faces its biggest challenge of the season Tuesday when it plays 29-0 Gonzaga. Because of Evan Mobley, the Trojans have a real shot at victory.

That dilemma befuddled Oregon coach Dana Altman and the Ducks on Sunday, as the extra attention on Evan Mobley allowed others to excel. Isaiah White scored a season-high-tying 22 points in the Sweet 16 win, while Tahj Eaddy added 20, including the dagger three-pointer in the final minutes.

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Evan Mobley, meanwhile, scored a quiet 10 points for a second consecutive game. Over that stretch, he has taken just 12 shots and dished out 11 assists.

“That just goes to show you how unselfish Evan Mobley is,” USC coach Andy Enfield said. “He takes what the defense gives. He has confidence in his teammates, and that goes throughout the whole team. He leads us with that. When your most talented offensive player is your most unselfish and willing passer, you can win a lot of games like that.”

To propel USC to the Final Four, he will need to do a bit more than that. No team in college basketball, this season and perhaps in the last several before it, scores more efficiently than Gonzaga. No team in the tournament has played at a quicker tempo this season, and no offense has been more balanced, with four scorers who average in double figures and also shoot close to 50% or better from the field.

Gonzaga forward Drew Timme and Jalen Suggs greet Joel Ayayi.
Gonzaga’s Drew Timme (2) and Jalen Suggs (1) greet Joel Ayayi (11) at the bench during a Sweet 16 win over Creighton in Indianapolis on Sunday.
(AJ Mast / Associated Press)

The combination of speed and efficiency is especially deadly for defenses that struggle in transition. It’s a testament to that tempo that Gonzaga boasts the highest two-point percentage in recent college basketball history, making an extraordinary 64% of its attempts inside the arc.

“They really push the pace on makes and misses,” Eaddy said of the Bulldogs. “That allows them to get in the paint early on offense, which allows them to kick it out for threes. We really have to be sharp in terms of taking good shots, taking care of the ball and making sure we get back on defense. We get them in the half court, it’ll be a good game.”

That’s the challenge facing Enfield, who was running on only a few hours of sleep Monday when he set out to craft a plan for slowing an offense no team has contained all season.

USC used its dominant defense and continued its surprising offensive surge to power past Oregon 82-68 and into the the Elite 8 of the NCAA tournament.

A star 7-footer certainly might come in handy in that pursuit. Mobley is a primary reason why USC boasts the top two-point defense in the country this season, making for an epic matchup inside the arc. His place in the middle of the Trojans’ zone defense is a primary reason why it has been so suffocating through the Sweet 16.

But to keep up with Gonzaga and make it to the Final Four, USC is going to need all the firepower it can muster. That starts with getting more from Evan Mobley.

“You have to be able to score the ball,” Enfield said. “You can’t have the game in the 60s and expect to win.”


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