That was the score-line of USC’s impressive win over their crosstown rivals in the UCLA Bruins this past Saturday, vaulting USC to the top of the Pac-12 standings with a 9-2 record in conference play. According to the latest bracket projections from CBS Sport’s analyst Jerry Palm, USC sits as the seventh seed in the bracket, projecting the Trojans to achieve their highest seed in the NCAA Tournament since the 2007-08 season when they went into the tournament as a sixth seed.
This is the highest seed that USC could have heading into the tournament in the Andy Enfield era. Ever since Enfield took over for the Trojans in 2013 after leading 15th-seeded Florida Gulf Coast to the Sweet 16 that March, the Trojans have only made the tournament twice (most likely would have been three times last year if COVID-19 did not cancel the postseason) and have only been an eight seed in 2016 and 11 in 2017. While 2017 saw the Trojans have success, avenging their 2016 loss to Providence in the First Four and upsetting SMU in the Round of 64, the Trojans have not won a Pac-12 championship since 1985.
This season, however, the Trojans are in prime position to win the Pac-12 regular season championship and look like the best team in the conference, a conference projected to field four teams in the tournament with a fifth (Stanford) right on the outside looking in. They also have the potential to at least add to the program’s tournament win total of 14.
There are two aspects the Trojans are spectacular at: blocking shots and controlling the glass with solid rebounding, the antithesis of the typical basketball team in this day and age of living and dying by the three-point shot. USC ranks 13th in rebounds per game with 40.8 and ranks 27th in offensive rebounds per game with 12.8 per game. They are even more impressive blocking shots as they rank sixth with 5.67 blocked shots per game.
The anchor of this imposing unit is potential top pick in the 2021 NBA Draft in Evan Mobley. He averages 16.3 points per game (PPG), 9.0 rebounds per game (RPG) and 2.9 blocks per game (BPG). With his athleticism and his 7’5 wingspan, he is a lethal weapon inside the paint. Evan’s brother, Isaiah, joins him in the paint and he chips in with 9.2 PPG, 7.4 RPG and 1.1 BPG. With these two constantly controlling the paint, it has become difficult for teams to have success inside, forcing opponents to beat USC by lighting it up from three-point territory. Against UCLA, the Trojans outrebounded the Bruins 40-33 and held UCLA to 3-19 shooting from three.
However, the issue for the Trojans has displaying been a consistent shooting threat, ranking 192nd in three-point shooting while ranking 71st in field goal percentage, along with being 305th in free-throw shooting. While guards Tahj Eaddy and Drew Peterson chip in with 12.8 and 9.8 PPG respectively, their consistency hasn’t been there as they shoot 35.6% and 38.0% from three respectively. In their last loss back on Jan. 19, the Trojans shot only 30% from three in that game in their 58-56 defeat at Oregon State.
Going back to the UCLA game, however, it displays signs that when it matters most, the Trojans can get hot and score when needed. Guard Ethan Anderson hit five of seven three-point attempts and scored 19 points in the win. While the rest of the team shot 4-19, all it takes is one player to get hot and the interior unit can take care of the rest.
The Trojans are clearly carried by their interior unit and if their offense can find consistency shooting this March, then the Trojans can become a threat against the elite of college basketball. If not however, they cannot find their shooting touch, it may become another mediocre and uneventful run in the NCAA Tournament.