Trojans Fall Short in Elite 8
The Trojans' season ended Tuesday night after falling to #1 Gonzaga 85-66. The Bulldogs were simply the better team in the Elite 8 matchup, as USC was unable to overcome a shaky start.
Heading into the game, many (myself included) believed that the Trojans confidence, defensive fortitude and size would give Gonzaga problems that they had not yet seen this season. USC came out timid and was blitzed by the more aggressive team. To win, USC needed to play a nearly perfect game and make a concerted effort to play the game at its desired pace. Gonzaga forced three turnovers in USC's first four possessions, and dictated both the tempo and style of the game. Gonzaga jumped out to a 7-0 lead, which quickly grew to a 13 point lead, and before the Trojans were able to take a breath the game seemed out of reach.
Gonzaga utilized all of its offensive pieces in poetic like motion, cutting and creating easy opportunities for its famed offense. Center Drew Timme was wildly efficient early on and scored 15 first half points. Evan Mobley picked up an early foul and was on his heels for most of the first half, allowing the sturdier Timme to utilize his entire arsenal of low-post moves. Future lottery pick Jalen Suggs was able to dissect the Trojans defense and added 13 points, 6 rebounds and 5 assists, and that was just in the first half. For a freshman point guard with the weight of history on his shoulders, Suggs never waivered and appeared almost robotic on the Court, making the right play time and time again. Simply put, he was as good as advertised. USC's was unable to slow down Suggs in transition and the Zags capitalized with 9 1st half points off of Trojan turnovers. Gonzaga made 54% of it's first half shots, and for good measure collected 6 offensive rebounds en route to a 49 point half, by far the most the Trojans allowed in a half this year.
Beyond the turnovers, USC's offense had issues of its own. In many ways, I felt like I was watching a football game between the Trojans and a Chip Kelly coached Oregon team. Oregon often tried to get out in front and almost dare the other team to try and keep up. By making a team one dimensional, it became much easier for them to defend which resulted in tons of interceptions. USC tried to keep pace with Gonzaga, which resulted in quick threes and a ton of isolation basketball. USC only converted 35% of its first half shots, and was 3-10 from beyond the arc. Isaiah White, who had been brilliant so far in the tournament, looked lost on the Court, and Tahj Eaddy seemed panicked for the first time all year. The Mobley Brothers provided 19 of USCs 30 first half points, but the offense lacked rhythm and meaningful ball movement.
Trailing by 19 at the half, USC made a point to take the ball inside and try to exploit its height advantage, and they were much more successful. The Mobleys and Drew Peterson were all able to find good looks at or near the basket, and USC actually played Gonzaga even in the second half. Of course, when you are down 19, the moral victory of an even second does not do anybody much good. USC was unable to make a dent in the Gonzaga lead, and the game ended without much fanfare. Of note, this was the first game all season in which 3 or more Trojans reached double figures and did not win. Isaiah Mobley led the Trojans with 19 points, followed by Evan (17), Peterson (13) and Eaddy (11). All other Trojans combined for 6 points.
I am disappointed by the way this season concluded, but I am extraordinarily proud of this USC team. I regret that I will never get to see Evan Mobley play in-person at the Galen Center, and am excited to see him take the next step in his career.
The next few weeks should be very interesting for the team/program. With the Covid rules, the 2020-2021 season does not effect the eligibility of rostered players, meaning every single player from this year's team can come back if they elect to. Aside from Evan, I do not envision anybody from this team declaring for the NBA draft. Isaiah is probably the second best prospect on this team, and I firmly believe that he would benefit from an extra year and being "the guy." I study a good number of mock-drafts and I have not yet seen his name grace the 60 pick projections.
If the Trojans return a roster with Tahj Eaddy, Drew Peterson, Isaiah Mobley, Isaiah White, Max Agbonkpolo, Ethan Anderson, Chevez Goodwin, Reese Waters, Noah Baumann and Joshua Morgan, we will be in good shape. Obviously the loss of Evan will sting, but added experience and the inclusion of a healthy Joshua Morgan will help the Trojans cope, especially on the defensive end. I am not sure if there will be transfers, it is easy for a player to act happy when the team is winning, I am sure there will be some turnover, but it is almost impossible to anticipate at the moment.
In addition to Reese Waters who reclassified to join the Trojans midway through the season, USC holds commitments from 4 high school players. The top recruit is Veritas Prep (La Verne, CA) Guard Malik Thomas. The 6'3" Thomas provides the attractive combination of shooting ability and athleticism, and should compete for playing time immediately in a back court that lacks depth. Thomas is more of a shooting guard, but can handle the ball if required to.
USC also holds a commitment from Mater Dei Forward Harrison Hornery. The 6'9" Hornery has a bit of Dirk Nowitzki in his game, he is a "stretch forward" who is not shy about his jump shot, but also has a developing low post game. He will need to add some muscle mass if he is to defend down low in the college ranks, but he is an intriguing prospect, especially if USC decides to go big and keep him on the wings.
Lastly, I want to thank everyone for your support, shares, likes, questions, criticisms, etc. This started as a pet project of sorts and an opportunity to share some thoughts on a special team. There will be updates, over the off-season, and I fully anticipate being back next season.