It was probably a good time to start paying attention to the USC Trojans before they beat Kansas by 34 points in the Round of 32. The biggest reason was always Evan Mobley. The program has had plenty of star freshmen. Mobley’s on a different level. It’s not a coincidence his team is too. Lately, the Pac-12 is receiving its flowers, and one of its teams will make the Elite Eight, depending on whether USC knocks off Oregon on Sunday. If they win, the Trojans could face an unbeaten Gonzaga team for a trip to the Final Four.
But first things first: In the past 10 years, 13 freshmen have led their teams to the Sweet 16 and gone on to be top-five selections in the NBA draft. That list includes Anthony Davis, Zion Williamson, Karl-Anthony Towns and Bradley Beal, among others. This year, Mobley and Gonzaga’s Jalen Suggs are projected to join the group. Projected top pick Cade Cunningham was one win from joining them.
As things now stand, Mobley’s 12.7 box plus-minus score (which attempts to represent player impact using box-score data) is tops in the nation, according to Barttorvik.com. If you filter that pool down to every player who made the tournament, Mobley is the only player to rate in the field's top 10 in both offensive and defensive BPM. He won Pac-12 Player of the Year, Pac-12 Freshman of the Year, and Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year. Yet there’s never been a point this season where Mobley and the Trojans have been college basketball’s top story—not even now. Granted, the wave of excitement over Mobley may have yet to crest (and as you read this, rest assured it’s happening in real time), it’s certainly lagged behind that of his peers. But as we enter the Sweet 16, he might just be the best player left in the tournament.
Within the program, there’s been some slight puzzlement over the muted fanfare—clearly, he’s that good—but as a defense-first player who drives winning and rarely forces up shots, the national hype has largely centered elsewhere, at least up until now. The West Coast effect means late-night TV slots are elsewhere. Mobley is more fundamental than flash. He’s soft-spoken and unconcerned with the attention. Perhaps whatever dampened the hype extended to USC, which played its entire Pac-12 schedule without a COVID-19 pause, and probably had a case for better than a No. 6 seed (still the highest of anyone in its conference other than Colorado, which is the only Pac-12 team that's been eliminated). Oregon technically finished first in the conference, but played two fewer games, and earned a No. 7. The Trojans played them just once, and won by 14.
The Mobley effect is central to USC’s smothering team defense, which rates fifth nationally per Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted efficiency numbers and rarely wavers. Six of eight Trojan regulars stand 6' 7" or taller, Mobley the tallest among them at 7'. They can toggle between man and zone. And when in doubt, they can funnel opponents toward the paint, where his 7' 4" wingspan dissuades most comers. Mobley rarely gets in foul trouble, often blocking shots out of the air instead of leaping into bodies to contest. He’s been remarkably consistent for a freshman learning on the fly under adverse circumstances.
“[Evan] doesn’t get rattled,” head coach Andy Enfield told reporters after Monday’s win. “His demeanor stays the same whether we’re up, or we’re down.” The Trojans’ staff doesn’t chart the full range of shots Mobley affects internally, but there’s no perfect way to track that without the ability to read minds. Much of the time, his impact on opposing drivers is psychological, turning away drivers and influencing extra passes. The easiest shots to defend are the ones that never happen. With Mobley as their backbone, the Trojans have won all year by manufacturing stops like clockwork. Dating back to Jan. 19, they’ve conceded more than 70 points in regulation just three times.
The trend across their five losses in that span has been threes conceded, with those opponents shooting 40% or better from distance each time. Attacking USC in the paint is a fool’s errand—they hold opponents to a national-best 41.1% from the floor on two-point attempts, per KenPom—but a capable team can beat them by making their open threes on a good night. USC is often content to let them take those chances, which you can do when you’re giving up basically nothing else. Three-point happy Oregon is likely to take them up on it.
While USC’s coaching staff has harped on making more of their own threes to split the difference all season, the Trojans themselves would be the first to admit that they didn’t necessarily expect to make 11-of-18 from long range against Kansas. They were a middling three-point shooting team in conference play, finishing eighth in makes and sixth in percentage (34.6%). The trends raise the question of sustainability. That win also showed where their ceiling lies when their role players make shots. From a confidence perspective, the results don’t hurt. And it’s Isaiah Mobley who’s stepped up most, making nine of 11 threes in four games dating back to the conference tournament.
As the story goes, the Mobley brothers landed at USC after Enfield hired their father, Eric, as an assistant coach in March 2018. Isaiah landed on campus last year and stuck around to play with Evan, who’s the more naturally gifted player, but cares little for his own standing. This version of the Trojans was assembled with the knowledge that there’d be two huge, versatile forwards to build lineups around. When it comes to All-American level recruits, that process can be touch and go. Relatively speaking, USC has had it easy.
“They’re very unselfish and have no ego,” Enfield said of the Mobley brothers. “They don’t need to score the ball, they don’t get jealous of other players. They just want to win.” Isaiah, 21 months older, is described as the naturally vocal one. The coaching staff frequently encourages Evan to be more talkative, to demand the ball, and make his presence felt through more than just his actions. His natural introversion has been mistaken for a lack of competitiveness in the past. After a poor showing on the national stage at the HoopHall Classic, he ceded his ranking as the No. 1 recruit in his class toward the very end of his senior year at Rancho Christian.
Thrust into a more competitive, stable playing environment, Mobley’s been a far different player since. Behind the scenes, he’s built up sweat equity within the group. What he’s doing under the spotlight nightly should be proof enough. And his impact has been so consistent that, objectively, USC’s fate this weekend is more likely to be decided by how well his teammates play than anything else.
The path ahead for the Trojans is almost serendipitous. Beat Oregon, make a statement to the conference. Draw Gonzaga, take a shot at history. And without jumping too far ahead, most things sounds easier when the best player in the tournament is on your team.