After dominating the first three rounds of the NCAA Tournament, USC reached the Elite Eight for the first time in 20 years. Unfortunately, the team now is in the not-so-enviable position of facing the vaunted juggernaut Gonzaga Bulldogs.
Being one of the final eight teams is nothing to scoff at, especially as a No. 6 seed. So far in March, we’ve seen the jaw-dropping dominance of freshman forward Evan Mobley, the growth of sophomore forward Isaiah Mobley and a collection of transfers coalesce into a team that is undeniably easy to root for.
USC made Kansas and Oregon –– two very solid teams –– look completely flustered on the court en route to blowout victories. The 3-point shot that disappeared at the end of the regular season suddenly roared back to life. USC boasts more size, height and length than most teams in the country, and when momentum is on its side, it makes for a daunting matchup.
But USC has no small feat ahead of it. Gonzaga is by far the best offense in the country and holds its weight defensively as well. The Bulldogs have outscored their opponents by an average of 23.2 points. This season, the question has not been if Gonzaga will win, but by how much.
Beyond the numbers, this could also be a tough matchup tactically for the Trojans. Even as one of the best defensive teams, USC can be vulnerable to good shooters and skilled guards. Think about the three losses against Colorado, and the trouble McKinley Wright and Jeriah Horne created. These weaknesses will assuredly be tested by Gonzaga head coach Mark Few’s perimeter-oriented attack predicated by high-level shooters and guard play.
The 2-3 Boeheimian zone that suffocated Oregon probably won’t work against Gonzaga. Not against guards freshman Jalen Suggs and junior Andrew Nembhard, two of the better playmakers in the NCAA. Their quick decision-making is geared toward breaking down zone defenses. USC will also have to dial in on senior forward Corey Kispert, arguably the most lethal shooter in the country. Just to survive defensively, the Trojans will need to stick man-to-man defense and communicate on screens.
At the same time, this will be Gonzaga’s toughest game since its preseason schedule. It’s one thing to watch film and game plan for USC’s size, and another to make a layup over Evan Mobley’s seven-foot frame.
Take it from Oregon coach Dana Altman: “I didn’t have [my players] ready for the zone. I thought we were. But their length and athleticism really bothered us.”
If the Mobley brothers can shut down Gonzaga’s looks at the rim, it could short circuit the Bulldogs’ offense into a slower paced, isolation-heavy game, taking them out of their comfort zone. On the other end, redshirt senior guards Tahj Eaddy and Isaiah White will need to stay hot and continue knocking down their open looks. The Trojans will certainly need to be nearly flawless for 40 minutes to hand Gonzaga its first loss.
It’s just the Elite Eight, but for all intents and purposes, this is USC’s final boss –– its toughest challenge. But as the adage goes: this is March. Anything can happen in a given game. Expect the Trojans to play with nothing to lose. Sprinkle in that mentality with some Mobley brother dominance and a hot shooting night, and it may just set up the Trojans for a storybook run.