At 4:15 tomorrow afternoon, the USC Trojans will face their toughest test of the season, and perhaps their toughest opponent since the days that John Wooden patrolled the sidelines for UCLA. The Trojans will match up with the Gonzaga Bulldogs, who enter the game a perfect 29-0 record and their sights set on history. It has been well document that no team has gone undefeated since Indiana completed the feat in 1976, and many analysts think this Gonzaga team is near unbeatable.
On paper, the Bulldogs have been outstanding, having won all 29 games by double digits. Coach Mark Few leads a highly disciplined and extremely talented roster that matches the star power of the greatest teams in College Basketball history. The Zags have won their three tournament games by an average of 25 points, and have not trailed in the second half of any tournament game. Simply put, Gonzaga has dominated this year. Before you blame a weak conference schedule, know that they did not back down from any matchup, and made easy work of Kansas, Iowa, Virginia and West Virginia (they were also slated to play Baylor, but the game was cancelled due to a positive test on the Baylor roster).
Gonzaga leads the nation in scoring, averaging an astounding 91.8 points per game. Leading the way for Mark Few's crew are a trio of Wooden Award candidates in Corey Kispert, Drew Timme and Jalen Suggs. Kispert is a 6'7" wing and the favorite to be named national player of the year after averaging 19 points per game and converting a dangerous 46% of this three pointers. Timme is a 6’10” Sophomore who utilizes fantastic footwork to average 18.9 points and 7 rebounds. Suggs is the highest rated recruit in program history, and future top 5 picks who serves as a catalyst for the Zags. The 6'5" freshman averages 14 points, 5 rebounds and 4 assists, and has a highlight reel filled with full court passes that would make Pete Maravich blush. Gonzaga also starts Florida Transfer Andrew Nebhard and Joel Ayayi, who is left unattended can burn a defense. Ayayi averaged 11 points per game and Nebhard added 9 more. For those of keeping track, that is 73 points per game averaged by the Gonzaga starting five, USC averaged 75.2 as a team this year.
There is no doubt that Gonzaga is a tremendous team, but do not count the Trojans out quite yet. There a variety of factors that play to USCs ability to compete in and perhaps pull off the upset.
This game will be decided by USCs ability to defend the paint. Gonzaga does a ton of damage at or near the rim, their guards can drive, Drew Timme is very creative and they are explosive in transition. USC has Evan and Isaiah Mobley. Gonzaga has not faced length like USCs all year long, and there is no way to adequately prepare for the 7'4" wingspan of Evan Mobley. Even if Evan does not block a shot, he alters trajectories in a way that can make a defense very uncomfortable very quickly. USC will most likely rely on the zone defense that has kept its Tournament opponents to a dreadful 32% from the field. Wings Isaiah White, Drew Peterson, Max Agbonkpolo and reserve Center Chevez Goodwin, add a gritty combination of size and speed and will hope run the Bulldogs off the 3 point line and into the teeth of the zone. Gonzaga converts at a 55% clip, something has to give, and the winner of this battle will likely win the game.
On offense, USC has been tremendous in the tournament, averaging a shade under 80 points per game, five points more than the 75 the Trojans averaged during the regular season. The difference maker has been the 3 pointer. USC has converted over 50% of its 3-point attempts, with major contributions coming from Tahj Eaddy and Isaiah White. If USC is able to remain hot from deep, they will once again have a noticeable size advantage inside. Again, Timme is 6'10" but the next tallest starter for the Zags is Kispert at 6'7" USC will have starts four players 6'7" or taller. We saw glimpses of the two man game between the Mobley brothers, and if the Trojans are able to pull Timme away from the hoop their should be an advantage down low for USC.
USC has been highly effective on the offensive glass this year. Coach Enfield will need to make a determination, whether to crash the glass aggressively like they have all year, or pull back and seek to slow down Jalen Suggs and the Gonzaga transition attack. I believe that any opportunity to steal a possession should be taken, and USC should not veer too far from the style of play that has earned them a birth to the Elite 8. Often times, opposing teams will foul on the put-back attempts largely due to being in an unusual position, if the Trojans are able to get Timme or Kispert in foul trouble, the dynamics of the game change drastically.
Evan has been very unselfish all season long, but tomorrow may be the ideal opportunity for him to become the aggressor and take the game to Gonzaga in a way they have not seen this year (Luke Garza did score 30 points against the Zags, but he and Mobley are very different players).
There are a few intangible factors that I also think are very much at play in this game. One, the Trojans are playing with an extraordinary amount of confidence, they have demolished their last few opponents and like Gonzaga, the Trojans have not trailed in the second half of any tournament game. The Trojans also have the knowledge of knowing that they went 3-1 against other Elite 8 teams this year (2-0 vs. UCLA and 1-1 vs. Oregon State), knowing that you have already competed against premier competition (although we did not know that at the time) has to help build confidence.
While I do not usually buy into the "what-ifs" of comparative scoring, I will make a quick note of it here. USC and Gonzaga has three mutual opponents this year, BYU, Santa Clara and Kansas.
Gonzaga + 14
Gonzaga +17, +11, +10
The Trojans have beat the same teams, by more points. Yes, Gonzaga received every teams best shot all year, this comes with the burden of being ranked #1, but the Trojans outperformed the Zags in these games, and it shows that we are not as outclassed as some believe.
Gonzaga is playing for history, aiming to become the first team in 45 years to complete an undefeated season. Every question they receive is about their record, and while I do not believe Mark Few will allow press clippings and premature anointments to plague his team, their is a good deal of pressure on his team to finish their perfect campaign. USC has been written off by many in this contest, which makes our team dangerous.
I am not sure what is going to happen in tomorrow's game, I love this team and believe that our defense (even against the nation's most potent offense) is capable of keeping our team in any game. If we can keep it close in the first half, I like our odds. USC will have the best player on the floor, and we are playing our best ball of the season, factors that cannot be overlooked.
In a prediction that I am sure will catch everyone off guard (read-sarcasm), I believe that USC will cut down the nets and earn a birth to its first Final Four since 1954. Trojans win by 3, with a final score in the high 70s...78-75 good guys!
Deep Breath Trojan Family, we are in for a fight tomorrow!