After three days of excitement, Monday’s end of the Round of 32 was not a particularly thrilling day for the men’s NCAA Tournament. Only one of the eight games played—Michigan-LSU—featured even a single lead change in the second half, and every winner enjoyed a double-digit margin of victory except those Wolverines, who only won by eight.
But even amid a sea of one-sided performances, USC managed to stand out. Nobody looked more dominant than the Trojans did in the late game yesterday, as they just absolutely blew the doors off of third-seeded Kansas with an almost-cruel 85-51 mugging. Their length gave the Jayhawks fits as what was supposed to be the second-best team in the Big 12 stumbled to a 1-of-11 start from the field, while USC’s own deadly accuracy (over 60 percent from three!) propelled them through multiple suffocating runs. High-level college basketball does not get much duller than this game’s second half, but the well-rounded destruction that the Trojans carried out was a real wake-up call for anyone who might have found themselves already asleep for most of their games this year.
“I would never say this to our team, but I wouldn’t have been disappointed if Drake had won the game against SC (in the first round),” Kansas coach Bill Self said afterwards. “Not because Drake is not good, just because it’s hard for us to match up against length and athletic ability. That’s been the downfall of our team all year long, and I think that was probably as evident tonight as it has been in a long time.”
The narrative of this tournament so far is that we all seem to have underestimated the powers of the Pac-12, and for my money no team from out west has impressed more than this USC group, who tripped into this tournament having gone just .500 in their last eight games but have since played up to the 18-3 record they held before their play slipped. USC’s size gives them the kind of steadfast defense that prevents high-percentage shots and second-chance opportunities, and when that’s combined with red-hot shooting on the other end of the floor, which they’ve been getting more often than not, the result is pure, undiluted humiliation for even the sport’s most consistent winners.
It all revolves around Evan Mobley, who you’ve likely heard about even if USC basketball wasn’t really on your radar, since he’s a 7-foot-tall consensus top-five NBA draft pick who makes pro teams dream of having their own Anthony Davis. There were so many garbage-time minutes against Kansas that no one part of his line overwhelms, but it still sketches a portrait of a remarkably versatile athlete: 10 points on 4-of-6 shooting, 13 rebounds, five assists, three blocks, one steal, and just one turnover. He doesn’t yet have the muscle to make him an instant next-level star, but in this tournament, he’s easily one of the most efficient scorers, best rebounders, best shot blockers, and, annoyingly for the opposition, a guy whose outside shot you at least have to respect.
But even if Evan is USC’s undisputed best player, this is not a lopsided team, and in fact their success stems directly from the fact that their other four starters complement their young star so well. Mobley hits 30.8 percent of his threes, which makes him the worst shooter from behind the line on USC’s starting five, which in turn means that double-teaming him isn’t a particularly viable option. Starting point guard Tahj Eaddy is the obvious runner-up for team MVP. A grad transfer out of Santa Clara, Eaddy proven himself to be a faultless facilitator and clutch shooter who hasn’t coughed up more than one turnover in any game in the month of March.
But the beauty of this USC lineup is that anybody can lead them in scoring on any night. Against Kansas yesterday, that was Evan’s older brother Isaiah Mobley, who’s gone an otherworldly 9-of-11 on threes since the end of the conference regular season. On Monday, his first four in a row went down for the Trojans, all in the first half, which allowed them to enjoy a 19-point lead at the break.
So up next for USC is a de facto Pac-12 title game that a couple of conference tourney upsets denied us. There are the Trojans, who went 15-5 in the conference, going up against the Oregon Ducks, who can raise the regular-season champs banner with their 14-4 record despite losing by 14 in their one meeting with USC. Oregon is the trickiest commodity to judge in the Sweet 16 thanks to their no-contest “win” over VCU, and it doesn’t feel smart to game out potential future matchups, given what’s happened in Indy so far. But it’s impossible not to look at the bracket as it stands now without thinking about Mobley vs. Gonzaga’s big man Drew Timme, who just went off for 30 against Oklahoma a few hours before USC and Kansas tipped.
What’s most interesting right at this moment in this particular region, however, is the looming clash of styles between the perimeter-focused Ducks and the low-post tendencies of the Trojans. And in addition to the X’s and O’s, unlike these teams’ blind dates with Drake and Kansas and Iowa so far in the tournament, this one is going to be personal.
“Oregon is a really good team,” Isaiah Mobley said when asked about facing the Ducks. “They’ve been on a roll. I don’t want to say necessarily they got luck because they are a good team. But they stole the Pac-12 championship from us.”
Given how the Mobley boys and their buddies looked against Kansas, a team that to my knowledge never did anything to personally offend or upset them, my hair is standing on end as I imagine what the Trojans can do when they hold a grudge.