Here we have it! The Final Four matchups are almost solidified. Both Houston & Baylor clinched their birth in the Final Four, following wins on Monday evening, and now we begin Tuesday’s action with Gonzaga & USC trying to get to the Final Four. Jonathon is handling the UCLA/Michigan preview, so check out his write-up for that game also.
Astoundingly, Gonzaga’s only eclipsed the Elite Eight one time in school history–coming in 2017, where they subsequently fell to UNC in the championship. Gonzaga gets closed to etching their stone in March Madness history– trying to be an undefeated national champion and trying to bring the program to a not often reached point. Should Gonzaga pull-away a victory in this splendid matchup, they’ll improve to 30-0.
Eons have passed since USC last appeared in the final four–the last time being all the way back in 1954 in the days of the “Pacific Coast Conference.”
The Trojans didn’t possess lofty expectations entering the season, ranking fourth in the PAC-12 preseason polls. Andy Enfield got a generational recruit in Evan Mobley, but many doubted the team’s legitimacy due to questionable guard-play coming into the season. At the time, there was reason to be cautiously optimistic about this team. They were adding three key-guard transfers, Drew Peterson (Rice), Isaiah White (Utah Valley) & Tahj Eaddy (Santa Clara). None of that trio ever played at a power-conference school prior to this season, and now that trio is a vital reason Andy Enfield is one game from notching a final-four bid.
USC destroyed Oregon getting to the Elite Eight, mainly a byproduct of their zone defense they ran. A crazy thing about that–USC was a man-defense-oriented team throughout the regular season, seldom showing zone looks, but did in both Oregon games. Now the Zags know his lethal USC’s zone can be with their length & athleticism. I would expect USC to change looks frequently in this one, trying to find out how to contain a powerhouse Zags team. A potential look Coach Enfield could deploy is a full-court press defense after a made shot, make Gonzaga play at a slower pace, drain time off the clock. If you let Gonzaga zoom up & down, USC simply won’t be able to keep pace.
Onto the offense of USC, their offense is clicking due to the vast improvements from beyond-the-arc in the tournament. In three tournament wins, USC has shot the ball from three at a phenomenal 27-53 (50.9%). Not a huge sample, but hard to ignore significant improvements like that opening up the offense for the Mobley’s inside.
A notable reason for the shooting hot-stretch is Isaiah White’s phenomenal turn-around. The Utah Valley transfer shot right around 30% entering the NCAA Tournament, and in three games hit 7-10, bolstering his percentage to 36%. There’s no question how valuable White’s been for USC in the tourney.
Evan Mobley is a top-three NBA Draft Pick for a multitude of reasons, but the main one is his ability to neutralize opposing bigs. Mobley hasn’t faced one like Drew Timme this season & vice-versa. USC could look to make others defeat them.
Of course, Corey Kispert is a prime candidate for that, earning WCC POTY honors while making the first-team All-American list. Kispert’s a marksman from three but vastly improved his game driving-wise this season, a complete scorer rather than just a shooter.
The guy I could see thriving here is freshman phenom, Jalen Suggs. On most teams, Suggs would be their leading scorer, but it’s an embarrassment of riches for Mark Few, having a future top-five NBA draftee as the third option. Suggs averages 13.9 on the season while facilitating the offense but could look to attack in this one against the smaller Tahj Eaddy & Ethan Anderson. In games where Suggs is in attack mode, rather than setting up others, he’s shown the capabilities of dropping 20+. If he’s able to do that in this Elite Eight matchup, USC won’t have much of a chance.
Anton Watson’s stout-defense could make a mark in this contest, facing two versatile players donning the same last-name of Mobley. Both Isaiah & Evan are lengthy & athletic with guard-like skills. When Watson plays, he’ll defend one of the two. I’d eye into those hypothetical pairings when it occurs.
PREDICTION: Gonzaga 88, USC 76
USC could throw up a good fight, but at the end of the day, there’s not much you can do to contain Gonzaga.