March Madness is officially here! After a season riddled with Covid-related pauses, we are finally here, and I for one cannot wait to see what this Trojan team brings to Las Vegas and then Indianapolis. I have been following USC Basketball since I can remember, and can say with confidence that this is my favorite USC team.
The difficulties that this team had to overcome are well documented. Coach Andy Enfield began the 2020-2021 season with 3 returning players (Ethan Anderson, Isaiah Mobley and Max Agbonkpolo) and had to find a way to replace 80% of last season's offensive production. An overhaul of this magnitude was the primary reason USC was picked to finish 6th in the pre-season polls. The Coronavirus Pandemic and subsequent distancing requirements put in place by both the State of California and the City of Los Angeles made it impossible for this team to establish any chemistry, as they were not allowed to practice together until just a few days before their first game.
Coach Enfield and his assistants deserve credit (and have been recognized) for fostering a team mentality. This roster is unusually unselfish, and seems to really enjoy playing together and supporting each other. There is limited ego, and from an outsider's perspective, it does not appear that anyone is frustrated with playing time. Of course the popular transfer portal will be the true indicator of displeasure in the offseason, but for now the members of this Trojans team appear to be content with their current roles.
An old adage in sports tells us, that a team will often mirror the mentality and attitude of its best player. A selfish and undisciplined star often leads to a selfish and undisciplined team. Pac-12 Player of the Year/Pac-12 Freshman of the Year/Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year (that feels good to write, and I am glad the conference got this one right) Evan Mobley is perhaps the best player to ever wear the Trojan cardinal and gold, and despite his immense talent and sky-high potential he rarely forces shots, looks to distribute to teammates and prides himself on the defensive side of the court. It is not a coincidence that this team mirrors these qualities, especially defensively, which has become the calling card of the 2021 Trojans. It has been a joy to watch this team grow throughout the season, and they should not be counted out against anybody in the upcoming weeks.
This week the Trojans will travel to Las Vegas to compete in the Pac-12 Tournament. USC will enter as the #2 seed behind Oregon, despite finishing with more wins, and defeating Oregon in the only head-to-head matchup this season (conference winning percentage was used as the tie-breaker). The top 4 seeds will receive a first round buy, and take the floor on Thursday.
USC will face the winner of Washington and Utah (at the time of writing Utah is up by 16 points with 9 minutes remaining). I received some backlash from readers after claiming that it was beneficial for USC to receive the #2 seed and run through this side of the bracket. I understand the psychological advantage that winning the conference regular season provides, but firmly believe that these potential matchups serve this Trojan team better. Utah beat USC by 10 points in Salt Lake City just 10 days ago. After an emotionally draining and disappointing game against Colorado, it was easy to see that USC came out flat and simply did not have "it" in Utah. I suspect that the momentum of last week's sweep of Stanford and UCLA will give this team the swagger it needs to walk into T-Mobile arena knowing that they are the team to beat.
(Below is the full bracket for this week's tournament)
USC is a lock for the NCAA Tournament, so they are simply playing for seeding at this point. Most bracketologists have the Trojans slated as either a 5 or 6 seed right now. A positive showing in Las Vegas would most likely push the Trojans to the 4 line or maybe even up to a 3 seed with marquee matchups with metric sweethearts Colorado and Oregon looming.
Once the Utah/Washington game becomes final, we will have a game preview for you.
I have attended the last five Pac-12 Tournaments in Las Vegas, and believe it is one of the best run events in the country. We will be there next year, and will hopefully be watching a repeat of what is to come in the upcoming days!