The USC Trojans were supposed to be one of Arizona’s first Pac-12 opponents, with the two originally set to meet Jan. 2 in Los Angeles before COVID got in the way of things. That game has yet to be rescheduled, making USC’s trip to McKale Center on Saturday the first meeting between the teams this season.
USC (19-3, 9-3 Pac-12) is ranked No. 19 in the country but was as high as fifth in mid-January as it started 13-0. The Trojans are coming off a 58-53 win at ASU on Thursday that saw them rally from down eight midway through the second half.
To better understand USC, we reached out to Matt Zemek of USA Today’s TrojansWire to get some insight. Here are his ferocious answers to our tame questions:
AZ Desert Swarm: USC brings back a large portion of the team that made a run to the Elite Eight last season, minus the obvious absence of Evan Mobley. How has this group compared to the one from a year ago, both positively and negatively?
Matt Zemek: “The positive comparison is that USC plays quality defense for longer stretches at a time. Last season’s team was great at playing late-game defense. This season’s team, at least in the 13-0 start and in Pac-12 games versus Colorado and Arizona State, was better at maintaining its defensive intensity and focus over 40 minutes (or closer to that). This season’s team had to be connected on defense in order to succeed, and for the most part, it has been. This team’s three losses all occurred in games when that defensive connectedness and consistency did not emerge.
“The negative comparison with last season’s team is that while everyone naturally looks at Evan Mobley as the obvious missing piece—of course he’s the biggest loss from 2021—Tahj Eaddy gets overlooked. Eaddy hit the big perimeter shot to not only give USC timely buckets but space the floor for everyone else. USC lacks a knockdown shooter who can keep opposing defenses honest. Eaddy isn’t a bigger loss than Evan Mobley, but he’s a bigger loss than many people realize.”
Speaking of Mobleys, Isaiah has really blossomed this season to the point that calling him Evan’s older brother doesn’t really seem fair. Where has he made the most growth?
“Mobley had a huge 2021 NCAA Tournament. He hit a bunch of 3-pointers in the blowout of Kansas. He expanded his offensive arsenal. He easily could have entered this season and hogged the ball, taking a disproportionate amount of shots. Last season, he frankly took more shots than he should have with Evan alongside him. This season, Isaiah Mobley is being far more judicious in his shot selection. He doesn’t play hero ball, and that has been a net-plus for USC. The challenge is for him to be smart yet also step up in important moments. He has done this against Cal and Arizona State. USC needs him to continue to be a crunch-time scorer. USC didn’t play a lot of close games during the 13-0 start, so Mobley is beginning to realize he needs to lead by example in high-stress, late-game situations. If he becomes a Mariano Rivera-like closer—or even half of that—USC will have a good March.”
The COVID pause around Christmas likely contributed to USC’s first loss, at Stanford, while falling at home to Oregon looked like a product of the Ducks coming on. What explains the recent performances, particularly the home loss to the Cardinal and Thursday’s near-disastrous result at ASU?
“It’s the big question with USC. The Trojans played eight games in 19 days from Jan. 11-29, and they lost their defensive edge in most of those games. The best defensive game in that 8-game bunch was the one game in which they had several days of rest leading up to it: Colorado on Jan. 20. USC played three games in two different weeks in January, and USC did not play an elite defensive game in either of those 3-game weeks. When the Trojans played Arizona State this past Thursday, after several days of rest—on a normal Pac-12 schedule, with the typical Thursday-Saturday game layout—they defended really well again.
“We still don’t know who the ‘real’ USC is. Is it a team which will regularly play great defense when its legs are fresh, or has the Pac-12 knocked this team back a peg, with Arizona possibly dealing the Trojans a 25-point blowout and UCLA also outclassing USC by a wide margin? We’ll find out soon enough.”
USC was the top defensive team in the Pac-12 a season ago, but this time around there appear to be more gaps on that side of the ball, particularly with 3-point defense and a lack of turnovers forced. Is this by design to just make opponents hunt for a perimeter shot rather than go inside?
“Let’s peel the layers of the onion here. USC’s 3-point defense has been bad over the past three weeks, but heading into the Jan. 11 game at Stanford, USC was holding opponents under 28 percent from 3-point range. The 3-point defense’s significant regression coincided with the stacked COVID-19 schedule. With ample rest, the Trojans limited Arizona State to 3 of 21 shooting from long distance. It magnifies the question/tension point raised above: Is USC a great defensive team whenever it is rested, or was this defense overrated?
“In terms of the approach, yes, I think that with USC’s length, the Trojans’ intent under Andy Enfield is to make opponents shoot over that length. Isaiah Mobley isn’t a deficient defensive player, but Evan Mobley was obviously a next-level defender who would clean up any drive to the rim or any attempt to attack the basket. With Evan Mobley, the 2021 USC defense wanted to run teams off the 3-point line and funnel ball-handlers into the paint, where Evan Mobley was waiting for them. Without Evan Mobley in 2022, the emphasis is more on making opponents shoot over USC’s wing length. The fact that USC doesn’t have a dynamic bench also means that allowing opponents to shoot threes places less strain on a defense. Look for Andy Enfield to use more zone defense in February; it worked against ASU on Thursday.”
Enfield’s hire back in 2013 turned a lot of heads, but he’s now the third-longest tenured coach in the Pac-12 and just signed an extension through 2025-26. How would you rate his time at USC?
“Two years ago (2020), Enfield had clearly not made the most out of the talent he had at USC. The Trojans had gotten past the first round of the NCAA Tournament only once in six seasons. The 2020 NCAA Tournament was canceled because of the pandemic, but even if USC had gotten in, the Trojans were going to be no higher than a 9 or 10 seed. That was with Onyeka Okongwu, a top-7 NBA draft pick, on the roster. USC fans were restless, and reasonably so.
“Yet, even though Enfield didn’t maximize his resources in the first several years of his USC tenure, it remained that if you count 2020 as an NCAA Tournament season (the Trojans were safely in that year), Enfield made three NCAA Tournaments, and he came within an eyelash of making the field in 2018 (the highest-rated RPI team from a Power Five conference to not make the field).
“USC made the 2021 NCAA Tournament and is nearing lock status for 2022. If you count 2020, this year will mark five NCAA bids for Enfield. Guess what? That’s the most NCAA Tournament bids for any USC coach, ever.
“Even when he was falling short, Enfield still raised the bar at USC. Now, after an Elite Eight season— with his team 19-3—it’s clear that he has raised the bar even more. Fans have warmed to him and appreciate the job he is doing. It just took one really big March run for the fan base to value all the things Enfield had done before the Evan Mobley breakthrough in 2021.”
Prediction time. Does USC win at McKale Center for the third time in four seasons, subsequently throwing itself back into the race for first place in the Pac-12, or does Arizona parlay its win over UCLA into its first home sweep of the LA schools since 2016? Give us a score prediction.
“USC playing Arizona second on the Tempe-Tucson road swing is a plus, given that the UA has to be somewhat drained from the emotional UCLA win. That might keep the game somewhat close. However, USC just isn’t getting consistent production from an 8- or 9-man rotation. USC’s tendency this season has been for two or three guys to play well on a specific night and bail out the rest of the roster. USC needs six or seven guys playing well at the same time, and that hasn’t happened many times this season.
“This feels like a game which will be very close with 13 or 14 minutes left, and then Arizona will separate. Cats 78, USC 65.”