The Trojans return to the Galen Center Wednesday night looking to right the ship after an utterly dissapointing and disasterous road trip to the Rockies. After a stellar start to conference play (10-2), the Trojans have dropped 3 of 4, and find themselves on the outside looking in of a crowded race at the top of the PAC-12 standings.
Last week, the Men of Troy were easily outplayed by both Colorado and lowly Utah, losing back-to-back games for the first time all season. While the altitude in the Rockies usually creates a difficult atmosphere for opposing teams, the Trojans did not help themselves out, most notably defensively. The Trojans have been one of the best defensive teams in the nation this year, due in large part to their tremedous length, depth and versatility. On the season the Trojans have held opponents to 39.3% shooting and 65 points per game, ranking first and second respectively (Colorado allows 63 ppg on average) in the conference. During last week's games the Trojans allowed 80 points to the Buffaloes and 71 to the Utes, with both teams shooting at a nearly 50% clip.
As we enter the final week of the season, is is abundantly clear that the defense needs to return to form and continue to create uncomfortable possessions for its opponenets. For this team, the interior defense must remain a disrupting presence and force shots from mid/long range. In both games last week, the Buffs and the Utes converted on over half of their 3 point attempts (something we have not seen since the season opener to Cal Baptist), stifling any chance at a comeback. In the backcourt, the Trojans rely more on size than quickness and it will be the responsibility of guards Tahj Eaddy, Drew Peterson, Ethan Anderson, Isaiah White, Noah Baumann and Max Agbonkpolo to stay in front of opposing shooters and disrupt their rhythm. Inside, superstar Frosh Evan Mobley continues to amaze, leading the conference in blocks (not including the dozens of shots he alters along the way) and rebounds, he is joined inside by his older brother Isaiah Mobley and Chavez Goodwin who combined contribute 11 rebounds and 1.5 blocks each game. Over the past few games, the Trojans have looked tired and disinterested and have been outhustled and out physicaled, two things that should not happen with the talent and depth Andy has available on this roster.
Offensively, the Trojans formula for success has been quite simple: as Tahj goes so go the Trojans. Eaddy, a transfer guard from Santa Clara has been a huge surprise this year for the Men of Troy. While Ethan Anderson was recovering from a back injury, Eaddy took over ballhandling responsibilities and became the primary source for exterior scoring and the most dangerous 3 point shooter on the team. In conference play Eaddy has average over 18 points per game in wins, while contributing only 8.2 points per game in losses. The Trojans will need consistent play from Eaddy and his backcourt mates if they are going to make noise in both the conference and NCAA tournaments.
Aside from Eaddy, balance has been the name of the game for USC. In games where 3 or more Trojans score double figures, USC is a perfect 16-0. A positive take away from the Utah game (and there were not many) was the improved play of Drew Peterson. After struggling for the better part of 3 weeks, Peterson added 19 points against the Utes, and will look to continue his hot hand against Stanford tonight. Enfield has said all the right things and publicly encouraged both Peterson and Isaiah White to be aggressive and look for shots, as we have seen countless times this year, when this team is making shots from the outside they are nearly impossible to beat.
We have seen flashes of an aggressive Evan Mobley throughout the season and the results have been staggering. As an unselfish yet wildly efficient big man with uber talent, Mobley is a nightmare for opposing defenses. I suspect that Enfield will work through Mobley tonight, especailly against an undersized Stanford team with limited interior depth. The Mobley-Mobley connection has been featured in a limited capacity (ASU game) but and I would love to see an expansion of the two man game between the brothers. It is simple, the Trojans need more from Isaiah Mobley, and tonight would be as good a time as any to reassert himself in the Trojan offense.
For Stanford, it has been a year of "what ifs" as injuries and Covid concerns have resulted in blow after blow for Coach Jerod Haase. On paper, the Cardinal boast one of the more talented rosters in the conference featuring all-conference Forward Oscar Da Silva, and key returners Bryce Wills, Spencer Jones, Daejon Davis, Jaiden Delaire. Future lottery pick Zaire Williams (out of nearby Sierra Canyon) rounds out a dangerous backcourt. The Cardinal were shorthanded in the previous meeting with the Trojans, but are expected to be at full strength for their regular season finale. Williams, Davis and Wills all missed the first meeting and all provide different challenges for the Trojans. Again Stanford's lack of interior size and depth should play right into the Trojan's gameplan. The Trojans should attack early and often. Stanford has dropped three straight and with those L's they have watching their tournament hopes dissapate burst.
Despite last week's struggles the Trojans still have an opportunity to win the regular season title. A win tonight vs. Stanford and another Bruin beatdown coupled with an Oregon loss (to either UCLA or Oregon State) and the Trojans are PAC-12 Champs.
I for one remain optimistic about this team's prospects moving forward. Coach Enfield has done a remarkable job thus far in blending new talent together, and finding a rotation that works. When this team moves the ball and seeks better shots, they are incredibly fun to watch. While Stanford poses unique challenges to the Trojans, I predict the Trojans win by 8-10 points, and will hold my breath for a Bruin miracle up in Eugene.