It’s safe to say that the USC men’s basketball team defied expectations this past season, finishing second in the Pac-12 regular season standings and advancing to the Elite Eight in the NCAA Tournament.
But should this year’s Trojans be included in the conversation of the most successful USC hoops squads in history? Let’s take a look at how the 2020-21 team stacks up with the best USC teams of the past.
Let’s start by establishing that this is the best Andy Enfield-led USC team we’ve seen. (I’m going to stress the word “seen” because we didn’t have the opportunity to watch the 2019-20 postseason play out due to the coronavirus pandemic — though this year’s team was probably better anyway.) Enfield’s previous two best teams by record were 2016-17 (26-10) and 2019-20 (22-9).
The 2016-17 team, which boasted three future NBA players in Chimezie Metu, Jordan McLaughlin and De’Anthony Melton, put up a respectable 26-10 record but lacked the ultimate success of this year’s team, finishing fifth in the Pac-12 and falling in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Whereas this year’s team specialized in defense, finishing ninth in opponent field goal percentage, the 2016-17 Trojans ranked outside the top 100 in many of the major statistical categories, including opponent field goal percentage.
Although the 2020-21 squad featured only three familiar faces from 2019-20 — forward Isaiah Mobley, guard Ethan Anderson and forward Max Agbonkpolo, all sophomores this last season — both teams had players with similar roles and both posted solid defensive numbers. Redshirt senior guard Tahj Eaddy stepped right into the shoes of former guard Jonah Mathews and posted a nearly identical 13.6 point per game average while shooting a more efficient 44.8% from the field. (Mathews shot 39.1% in 2019-20.) And after forward Onyeka Okongwu went to the Atlanta Hawks in the first round, freshman Evan Mobley more than filled in, becoming the conference Player, Defensive Player and Freshman of the Year.
One big difference between this season and the aforementioned seasons is USC’s average scoring margin. The Trojans outscored their opponents by an average of 9.8 points per game this year, compared to 4.3 points the previous year and 5.1 points in 2016-17. This is even more impressive considering the Trojans’ shortened nonconference schedule, a portion that is typically composed of favorable matchups.
Yes, it’s a small sample size, but it seems that Enfield is starting to develop a winning formula that transcends the individual players on the court. It wasn’t like he had a roster burgeoning with NBA talent this season — Evan is a projected top-three pick and was one of the best players in college basketball this season, and Isaiah and Eaddy could be late picks, but Enfield was successful in seeking out transfers and other players who could fill the other roles on the team.
The true test will be whether Enfield can continue this success after Evan Mobley leaves. While this could very well be Enfield’s ceiling at USC, this year also provides a glimpse of the program’s potential that should make fans excited for the coming seasons. More success means more recruiting, which means more Evan Mobley-level talent.
Now that we’ve established this was very likely Enfield’s best USC team, we can revisit the original question: Was this the best USC team ever? The program has over 100 years of history, so I’m only going to consider the years since 1968, when the Pac-8 was formed.
I hate to burst the bubble so quickly, but the 1970-71 team had to be USC’s most dominant ever. They went 24-2, with their only losses coming against historic UCLA coach John Wooden. At that time, only the first place team in the conference advanced to March Madness, so this team was never able to assert its strength in the postseason.
Head coach Bob Boyd also coached a great 1973-74 squad that didn’t make the NCAA Tournament, encouraging the NCAA to expand its tournament field and accept at-large bids. The team only had four regular-season losses and finished second in the Pac-8 behind another Wooden-led UCLA squad. If it weren’t for that stretch in February where the 2020-21 team lost three of four, the two teams would have similar records. The 2020-21 team has the edge in scoring margin, 9.8 points compared to 6.9, but the 1973-74 Trojans faced more ranked competitors, so it might be too close to call.
A stat that was thrown around after USC made the Elite Eight is that it was the program’s first quarterfinal appearance in 20 years. That 2000-01 team had kind of a similar story to this year’s team — also a sixth seed, they lost to the No. 1 team, Duke, in the Elite Eight. But despite the comparable success, the 2000-01 Trojans had inferior defensive rankings to this year’s team, finishing 164th in opponent field goal percentage. If the two teams went head-to-head, it would likely be a competitive matchup, but given the defensive discrepancy, 2020-21′s squad might have the upper hand.
Finally, the USC team with the highest tournament seed was in 1991-92, when the Trojans captured the No. 2 spot. (Keep in mind that the aforementioned 1970 team might have been just as high if not for the old playoff format.) The Trojans posted a 22-5 regular-season record before losing to Georgia Tech on a buzzer-beater in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. They might not have advanced to the Elite Eight like this year’s team, but they were more dominant in the regular season, winning four games against top 10 opponents. Who knows how far they might have advanced if not for the devastating buzzer-beater?
One thing that makes it so hard to compare present and past teams is that currently, the best players only play one year of college hoops. Imagine if USC could have Evan Mobley for three to four years and could use him to attract more talented players, rather than having only one opportunity to win with the big man.
All in all, I’d probably put the 2020-21 Trojans at third, behind the 1970-71 and 1991-92 squads and tied with the 1973-74 team.
This year’s USC defense was perhaps the program’s best ever. Evan Mobley is one of the best players to wear a Trojan uniform. Enfield is only the fourth USC coach to win conference Coach of the Year honors. It might not be the most dominant overall product ever from USC, but given the relatively low expectations — the media projected USC to finish sixth in the Pac-12 in a preseason poll — it was a great Cinderella story.
With the program trending upward, it will be interesting to see how long it takes before another team arises that gives these great past USC squads a run for their money.