When the USC Trojans take the floor tomorrow night against Oregon, they will have an opportunity to advance to Elite 8 for the first time in 20 years. I have extremely fond memories of the 2001 Trojan team, they were talented, composed, experienced and tough. The legacy of this team is plastered all over the USC record books, and deservedly so, the 2001 team did not feature any one-and-done players, but rather a core group of Juniors and Seniors who battled night in and night out before eventually falling to would-be National Champion Duke in the Elite 8. For many years, this team was my gold standard for USC Hoops, they were the most talented and team oriented Trojan team I have ever seen...that is until this year's team came along!
For all intents and purposes, the two rosters could not be more different. Whereas the 2001 Trojans returned all 5 starters from a decent 2000 campaign, Coach Enfield had to replace nearly his entire roster without an offseason. Despite the differences in roster composition, the Men of Troy will face stiff competition in the Oregon Ducks.
Of course, as an intraconference foe, the two teams already have a solid understanding of each other, which will make for an interesting chess match tomorrow night. Undoubtedly, both coaches will start with game film from the 2/22 meeting. USC beat Oregon 72-58 at the Galen Center, in what was a quickly arranged, re-scheduled game. Oregon was forced to deal with multiple Covid pauses throughout their season, which resulted in a condensed schedule once they resumed activity, due to timing issues the Trojans and Ducks met just the one time.
The game itself was not as close as the final score would indicate. USC jumped out to a 15-0 lead, and the Trojans led by double digits for the duration of the game. Tahj Eaddy was brilliant for USC, and nailed three pointers on the first three Trojan possessions. Eaddy finished the game with 24 points (21 of which came in the first half). Oregon was limited to 34% from the field in the first half, and just 1-8 from the three point line. Conversely, USC made 7-11 threes and took a 21-point lead into the break.
The second half saw Oregon deploy full court pressure, and they were able to force some turnovers to cut the lead down to 10. USC then turned to familiar faces in Evan Mobley and Drew Peterson to seal the deal and prevent the Ducks from getting any closer. Note that USC F, and newly appointed Three Point King, Isaiah Mobley did not suit up for this game as he was dealing with a leg contusion at the time. Of course, Isaiah will be healthy tomorrow, and his presence should provide change the look and feel of this game.
On paper, these teams are quite different. USC has overwhelmed teams with its length, utilizing a starting lineup with 4 players over 6'7". Oregon, on the other hand starts 4 players who are 6'6" and one player who is 6'5". What the Ducks lack in size, they make up for in defensive intensity and athleticism. Oregon will run its patented zone against USC, and will look for a combination of Forwards to keep the Mobley brothers from establishing good position down low. Expect Oregon Coach Dana Altman to apply full-court pressure and force USC to be disciplined for 94 feet. All-Conference Guard Chris Duarte is among the best perimeter defenders in the country, and USC will need to be decisive and quick to beat the exterior part of the Oregon defense. If the Trojan Guards/Wings are able to penetrate the Oregon zone and have clean looks at the hoop or setup Evan and Isaiah, USC will be in tremendous shape. Oregon has no answer for the Mobleys and their best plan will be to deny any entry pass into the low post. Oregon will collapse on Evan each and every time he touches the ball, if he is able to pass out of pressure or get any of the Oregon Forwards into foul trouble, look for USC to attack ferociously against the Oregon bench.
Like many games with USC this year, if the Guards are able to make a few shots from the perimeter this team can become a matchup nightmare. If Eaddy, Peterson, Isaiah White or Isaiah Mobley are able to establish comfort and knock down an early three pointer, and force the Oregon defense to contest the entire arc, the floor should open up for the team. USC will be able to score against Oregon, the size advantage and talent in the front court are a matchup nightmare for the Ducks. If USC is able to limit turnovers against both the Oregon press and on swing passes, I really like our odds.
On the defensive side of the ball, Oregon poses a bunch of unique threats. First, Oregon is tremendous in transition. Whatever disadvantages their lack of size poses on the defensive side, they make up for in transition. 1-5 they can run, and all of their starters can handle the ball and finish. Oregon is also not shy about working the ball to an open three point shooter on the break. USC has had issues with transition defense at points this year, and it is largely a side-effect of an aggressive rebounding philosophy. Coach Enfield will need to make a determination about how many players he wants to crash the offensive glass versus getting back in transition defense. Oregon will push immediately upon defensive rebound, and look to exploit any holes in an opponent's defense. Oregon blistered #2 seed Iowa with a bunch of points off turnovers and in transition, and blew the game open with 11 three pointers.
USCs zone has been impressive in the first two games of the Tournament, and if the Trojans are to advance to the Elite 8, the defensive pressure will need to continue. Oregon can catch fire in a hurry, and it will be up to the top of the zone to eliminate open looks. The Ducks will look to turn this into a track meet, but Andy's depth should allow USC to stay fresh with the likes of Chevez Goodwin, Ethan Anderson and Max Agbonkpolo.
I believe this team is built for moments like this, and I think we will see the Trojans in the Elite 8. Aside from the usual suspects, look for Ethan Anderson's offensive creativity to be impactful off the bench, especially against Oregon's reserves. I think the Trojans are peaking at the right time, and make work of the Ducks, winning this game by 7-10 points.