Isaiah Mobley’s quote from Monday night after USC advanced to a Sweet 16 matchup with Oregon has sure made the rounds this week, as anyone could have predicted.
“Oregon is a really good team. They’ve been on a roll. I don’t want to say necessarily they got luck, because they are a good team, but they stole the Pac-12 championship from us,” the sophomore forward said.
USC finished the regular season with the most Pac-12 wins at 15-5 in the league (including a win in the only meeting with Oregon), while the Ducks finished 14-4 due to some COVID-related cancellations, and by virtue of winning percentage Oregon was named conference champion. Trojans coach Andy Enfield had expressed his own frustration on the matter before, specifically that Oregon didn’t have to play a road game at UCLA.
It would have been a major feat for USC, which hasn’t claimed a Pac-12 regular-season title since 1985.
But on Thursday, Enfield did his best to downplay all of that as a storyline this week while preparing his No. 6-seeded Trojans (24-7) for a showdown with the No. 7-seeded Ducks (21-6) Sunday night in Indianapolis, Ind.
Indeed, the stakes and the opportunity to make history are even greater for USC now than any Pac-12 achievement.
“The Pac-12 schedule, COVID took us in a lot of different directions this year and it’s nobody’s fault that Oregon played two less league games than us and that’s just the way it worked out,” Enfield said. “We played 20 league games and they played 18 and they deserved … they went 14-4, we went 15-5. The rules were the percentage would decide it. Even though they didn’t play their full schedule they had a great season. We have a lot of respect for Oregon. They’re a terrific basketball team. To us, they’re a top 10 team in the country.
“I don’t think this game has any more significance because of the Pac-12 schedule. We think this is a terrific team we’re playing and we have to play our best to have a chance to win.”
No. 6 USC vs. No. 7 Oregon
When: 6:45 p.m. PT Sunday
Where: Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Indianapolis, Ind.
Oregon redshirt senior forward Eugene Omoruyi also chose not to engage on the Pac-12 championship subplot when asked about Mobley’s comments.
“We’re not going to get into the back and forth talking with them — we just know that we have to go out and compete,” he said.
Both sides did agree on one thing — these are not the same teams that met at Galen Center on Feb. 22, when USC rolled to a 72-58 win.
“We’re both two different teams now. A month is a pretty long time, we both probably play different, a little bit,” USC star freshman Evan Mobley said. “But that game, we played very, well, we started off the game very hot, also our defense was on point so hopefully we can do that again and get a dub.”
Said Omoruyi: “I’m very excited. I wanted this game in the Pac-12 tournament — we couldn’t get it there, but I’m just happy to get it now.”
Oregon is used to this stage, making its fifth Sweet 16 appearance since 2013 under coach Dana Altman, including two Elite Eight appearances and one Final Four run. Since that loss to USC, the Ducks have won seven of their last eight games, including a 95-80 demolition of No. 2-seed Iowa in the second round of the tournament after receiving an automatic win in the first round when VCU had to drop out due to COVID.
USC, meanwhile, is in the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2007 and has only reached the Elite Eight once in the last 65 years (in 2001). But the Trojans have acclimated to the stage quite well, blowing out Drake, 72-56, in the first round and then demolishing No. 3-seed Kansas, 85-51, on Monday night.
“I think both teams, Oregon and USC have improved since that game over a month ago, and that’s what college basketball should be — teams improve throughout the season. Oregon certainly has done that, and so have we, so this will be a much different game, it’s on a much bigger stage and I think both teams are playing good basketball right now,” Enfield said. “… We have a lot of respect for Oregon. We’ve watched them improve as a team and we know we have a very challenging game on Sunday.”
How have the Ducks improved? Well, it starts with junior guard Will Richardson, who did not make his season debut until Feb. 4 after recovering from surgery to his left thumb. He averaged a modest 9.2 points through his first nine games (including just 5 vs. USC), but since then he’s turned it up offensively, averaging 15.3 points over the last six games.
That has coincided with him becoming blazing hot from beyond the arc, shooting 16 of 26 on 3-pointers (61.5 percent) in that stretch. He had 19 points (3 of 4 on 3s) in that win over Iowa in the second round.
“First of all, Will is more comfortable now. The ball’s in his hands a lot. I think we’re a little more settled on roles than we were [in Feb. against USC]. That was right in the middle of our seven games in 14 days, so I didn’t know how the team would respond and [we] didn’t respond very well that night,” Altman said. “…. We have had a good stretch here. It’s going to be important that our ball movement’s good. They present a lot of problems defensively with the talent and athleticism they have at all positions and the boards are a concern because of their size. So it’s going to be a tough matchup for us, but I know our guys are looking forward to that challenge.”
Omoruyi said he reminds Richardson before every game how important he is to this Ducks team.
“I always tell him before the game, ‘We’re as good as you take us.’ .. We need him to have big games to get us going,” he said.
Enfield, meanwhile, was asked about Richardson’s emergence, and he reminded the questioner about Isaiah Mobley’s own emergence this postseason for USC. The older Mobley, who actually missed that Oregon game due to injury, has had his best back-to-back game stretch of the whole season in this NCAA tournament, with 15 points and 5 rebounds against Drake and 17 points and 8 rebounds vs. Kansas. More to the point, he has inexplicably become one of the hottest 3-point shooters in the country as well.
Mobley, a 6-foot-10 forward who had only made seven 3-pointers all season prior to the Pac-12 tournament (and never more than one in any game), is now 9 for 11 from beyond the arc over the last four games. He drained his first four 3s Monday night in that win over Kansas and has talked about how he refined his stroke leading into that conference tournament.
Simply put, he’s become an extra offensive weapon the Trojans haven’t really had most of the season, to add to the team’s offensive core of younger brother Evan (16.5 PPG), guard Tahj Eaddy (13.5 PPG) and guard Drew Peterson (9.8 PPG).
“Isaiah is shooting the ball at a high level right now, he’s playing terrific basketball, and so is Will Richardson. I think those two players have really improved throughout the season and I think you’ve seen that throughout the NCAA tournament,” Enfield said.
That 72-58 USC win over Oregon back Feb. 2 should serve as a confidence boost for the Trojans, but no, it ultimately doesn’t mean anything with regard to what is going to happen Sunday. The Ducks came out cold from the field in the first half that night while the Trojans torched the nets to the tune of 65.4-percent shooting in building a 43-22 halftime lead.
Actually, it was quite similar to what they just did to Kansas on Monday night, but that has not been a common formula for the team this season. Playing stingy defense has been part of this team’s identity the whole way, but the offense and shooting has come and gone.
Perhaps the most relatable stat from that first meeting was that USC earned a 39-25 rebounding advantage, and with the height advantage it possesses over Oregon — led by brothers Evan (7-foot) and Isaiah Mobley (6-10) — that could be a pivotal factor yet again.
“Very tough matchup for for us — their size, their athleticism, very gifted team. We’re going to have to be play really well. We know that, our guys know that,” Altman said.
For USC, it will have to again start on defense, specifically in clamping down against a Ducks team that has four players who have made at least 30 3s this season, including senior guard Chris Duarte (59 of 138 on 3s, 42.8 percent), plus Richardson’s late-season emergence.
“Our defense is really what makes our team, I feel like,” Evan Mobley said of the matchup. “Our main focus now is defending the 3-point line. We usually defend the 2-pointers pretty well because of our length, but defending the 3-point line is our main focus and we did that really well in the past two games and I feel that’s what made our defense so well.”
If the Trojans can put it all together again against the Ducks, they certainly won’t be thinking any more about the Pac-12 title that could have been, as they will have made even great program history.
The Sweet 16 stage awaits Sunday night.