Basketball

Three quotes that help explain USC men’s basketball’s rise to No. 8

With the Trojans’ season on pause due to COVID-19, it’s a good time to look back on how they became one of just five undefeated teams in men’s college basketball.

A photo of USC redshirt senior forward Chevez Goodwin in a white uniform and headband, clenching both fists and yelling in excitement. Junior forward Isaiah Mobley approaches to high-five him, while two UC Irvine players with exasperated looks watch nearby in gold and dark blue uniforms.

“Steal it from Mobley, steal it from Mobley. Take it from him. He can’t dribble.”

Isaiah Mobley cracked a smile following USC’s Dec. 15 win over UC Irvine before explaining why the game had, in some ways, become personal.

An incident years ago with now-Anteater Collin Welp was one reason. The two were squaring off against each other right before Mobley came to USC, and Welp inadvertently stepped on Mobley’s foot, breaking it.

Mobley said he knew it was unintentional. He called Welp a “great guy,” which came off as extra sincere given that Welp had just scattered 24 points against his squad. Nonetheless, the injury was an extra catalyst for Mobley’s competitive spirit.

But the greater motivator was the aforementioned words — the ones about stealing it from Mobley, who allegedly can’t dribble. Those came from one of the coaches on the UC Irvine bench on Dec. 15, presumably in an effort to get under his skin.

It didn’t work. Points for originality, though?

“It was just new to me to hear that,” Mobley said. “It was a good test for me to not get out of character, stay poised and stay invested into the team and not make it a selfish battle, like, ‘I gotta score 40 now because they’re saying X, Y and Z.’”

Mobley passed that test. He did not score 40 — he scored 22, still an unquestionably productive output on 56% shooting from the field, adding 12 rebounds and a pair of steals in the win.

But 12 games into USC’s 2021-22 season, it’s become clear that that demonstrated ability to tune out the noise wasn’t a one-off for Mobley.

“He’s matured a lot,” redshirt senior forward Chevez Goodwin said. “I feel like a year ago, Isaiah was kinda more just trying to find his way, just trying to silence a lot of people — outside voices and whatnot. Because I mean, the guy’s a McDonald’s All-American, all that stuff, and when you get to that type of status, everyone wants to chirp at you and tell you ‘You’re not this, you’re not that, you’re not as good, you’re overrated.’ But I feel like this year, he’s kinda just been himself. He hasn’t really fed into that big-name type of deal.”

Don’t just take it from Goodwin. Take it from the stat sheet. Mobley’s scoring over five more points per game this year than he did last year, and he’s doing it on improved efficiency. His three-point percentage is down — one measly percent, and he’s already attempted eight more triples through 12 games this season than he did in 32 games last year. He’s grabbed more than two extra rebounds and dished out more than one additional assist per game. Often, when it seems USC has hit a rut offensively, the Trojans have turned to their best player to dig them out of it. Good things tend to follow.

Mobley had a decision to make after USC’s Elite Eight run in the spring: stay another year, or follow his brother Evan and declare for the NBA Draft. Actually, he did both — he declared in April, then withdrew himself in July.

If the goal was to build off of his standout NCAA Tournament to improve his draft stock — well, so far, so good.

“If he’s not in Pac-12 Player of the Year consideration right now, I don’t know what we’re doing in this conference,” Goodwin said. “He’s been lights out the entire season.”

Mobley has improved considerably in each offseason of his USC career. His latest leap is a large reason his team finds itself with its highest in-season ranking since 1992.

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“They’re gonna break. I’m telling you, they’re gonna break right here. Next possession, next possession.”

A discussion about offseason leaps at USC without repeated mentions of Goodwin is an utterly incomplete one.

Those above words came from Goodwin to his teammates during a tough stretch offensively in that same win over UC Irvine, when the Trojans’ offense had stalled a few minutes into the second half. They’re gonna break. Next possession.

The theme here is confidence. Goodwin meant the words as confidence in his team, but confidence in himself is in no small part responsible for the 23-point outburst that, along with Mobley, helped his team fend off an upset by UCI.

Confidence — that’s why Goodwin has become such a key cog to the machine that is USC men’s basketball this season. All due respect to Mobley, but if we’re analyzing the 2021-22 roster purely through a lens of improvement, Goodwin takes the cake. He’s averaging 13.2 points this year, compared to 5.6 last year, on a more than 10% increase in field goal percentage. He’s more than doubled his rebounding average, from 3.5 to 7.1. More assists, blocks and steals per game, too.

Free-throw shooting has never been Goodwin’s forte, and that much hasn’t changed: He’s knocked down barely more than half of his attempts this year. But he hit 7 of 11 against UCI — a difference-making rate in a nail-biter of a game — and he chalked that, along with the strides he’s made all season, up to one thing:

You can probably guess.

“Stay[ing] confident in myself,” Goodwin said. “Last year I kind of sped up and wanted to embrace being on the team and playing and having a role and stuff like that. This year, I’m more or less just enjoying the moment … I feel like that’s helped me just get my confidence in what I’ve done so far, so that’s what I’ve been doing.”

Mobley said he’s seen the same thing — that Goodwin’s confidence has correlated with increasing comfort in the program during his second season since transferring from Wofford.

As for his head coach, Andy Enfield, who’s rewarded Goodwin with an increase in playing time and a spot in the Trojans’ starting five? He said Goodwin’s footwork has improved, as has his first step, his ambidexterity and toolbag around the rim, his quickness and his feel of the opposing defense.

He partially credited strength and conditioning assistant coach Kurtis Shultz and assistant coach Eric Mobley for those improvements, but he gave the most props to the man himself.

“He spent so much time in the offseason. During the season, he works on his game,” Enfield said. “We’re very proud of his work ethic. He’s one of the hardest workers we’ve ever coached, every day in practice, on his own, and he has a passion for the game of basketball. And to improve like that, you have to have that passion, and I think you see it every time he steps on the court.”

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“We can’t do anything more for you guys. This is on you, whether you want to win or not.”

That was what Enfield told his team at halftime of that UCI game — at least, that’s how Goodwin remembered his coach’s speech. The Trojans trailed by eight, only the second time they’d been behind at the break all season.

Mobley said assistant coach Chris Capko walked into the locker room “hot, which was necessary, though” — and that the message was similar to Goodwin’s recollection: “We can give you the answers to the test, but you’ve gotta write them down yourselves.”

Well, the players wrote them down, as they have all season when faced with any semblance of adversity. And that hasn’t been an infrequent feat, because despite their seamless record, a few of their 12 wins have been anything but that.

Against Temple on Nov. 13, USC let a 23-point lead dwindle to three before holding on for the victory. The Trojans had to fight both the Cougars and a raucous home crowd against Washington State in Pullman on Dec. 4, stealing the kind of win that’s always hardest to come by — a road, in-conference one — despite trailing in the final minute. They were tied with Long Beach State at halftime on Dec. 12 before opening the second frame with a 14-0 run that wound up deciding things. And there were the pesky Anteaters, who trailed by just two points with less than a minute to go in a bid to hand the Trojans defeat No. 1.

It’s those kinds of games where poise and maturity go as far — perhaps further — than any inbounds play or defensive setup a coach can draw on a whiteboard.

“Everybody just came together. It was all about winning,” Enfield said after that UCI game, but really, it could’ve applied to any of the aforementioned battles. “Our players came together and realized that they have to do it as a team … We have that in us.”

That much is evident. The door of heroes has been a revolving one for the Trojans thus far. Mobley, Goodwin and junior guard Boogie Ellis have each led the team in scoring four games apiece, and it seems whenever one is off, the other two shoulder the burden, with enough help around them to get it done.

Some nights, all three will click, like the Trojans’ most recent win over Georgia Tech. Each of those three scored in double figures, with senior guard Drew Peterson chipping in 14 points of his own and junior guard Ethan Anderson 11, and USC coasted to a 14-point victory.

But then there are nights like Thanksgiving, when Mobley offered just four points — a season low — while Ellis and Goodwin combined for 27. That, along with 13 from redshirt sophomore forward Joshua Morgan, more than compensated for Mobley’s off night, and the Trojans beat St. Joseph’s by a comfortable 15 points.

Or Dec. 1, when Goodwin scored just six points, but Mobley and Ellis’ combined 40-piece plus 16 from junior forward Max Agbonkpolo, 11 from Peterson and 10 from Anderson helped USC topple Utah by 20 in its Pac-12 opener.

Or Dec. 7, when Mobley, Peterson, Goodwin and Agbonkpolo each scored in double figures to overcome a dreadful zero points on 0-for-10 shooting by Ellis as the Trojans beat Eastern Kentucky by 12.

“Next man up” is cliché, but it’s the mantra the Trojans have lived by — and it’s a mantra that a top team, which USC can safely call itself, both embraces and acts on.

“Pressure’s a privilege,” Goodwin said after the UCI win. “We’re privileged to be in this position right here, to be able to be a Top-10 team. You’re gonna get everybody’s best shot every day, every night.”

That, they have. And it hasn’t always come easy. But when adversity strikes, the Trojans have responded. If they didn’t, they could very well be 8-4, or worse.

But they’re not. They’re 12-0, they’re the No. 8-ranked team in the country and while the season is young, they’ve shown they possess the it-factor that indicates they’re here to stay.