March Madness brackets are being broken since one of the first games earlier this month saw Oral Roberts University beat the Ohio State University Buckeyes in the first round of the tournament, defeating them 75-72 in overtime. The Golden Eagles came into the tourney as the 15th seed and were not expected to move past the No. 2 seed Buckeyes.
Oral Roberts was defeated in the Sweet 16, but after this past weekend, if you are a local fan, and have been following, University of California Los Angeles and University of Southern California both made it to the Elite Eight. That means seven games remain overall before a national champion is crowned. USC will take on top-seeded Gonzaga University, and the Trojans face an uphill climb against the mighty Bulldogs, but what makes this game even more exciting is that it features three local players, facing off against each other, who all played at Rancho Christian High School.
Dominick Harris (Gonzaga) and Evan and Isaiah Mobley (USC) all played together for the 17-18 season when Rancho Christian was moved up to Division 1 in CIF-SS due to their competitive equity system, the teams overall record the previous year, and their CIF State appearance. With a 29-5 overall record, the Eagles made it to the third round of the State Playoff Tournament.
Fast forward to 2021, a year into the coronavirus pandemic that shut down the tournament last year, and with little to fans cheering them on, USC’s emergence as the most frightening defensive team in the NCAA March Madness tournament makes them a capable match for the undefeated Bulldogs. The Trojans beat Kansas State University by 34 in the second round and emphatically clocked in for the Elite Eight with an 82–68 win over University of Oregon. With size across the board, their ability to mix and match defensive looks around Evan Mobley, the most gifted rim protector in college hoops, is next to impossible for opposing teams to simulate in walkthroughs.
This week’s game will tell just how tricky Gonzaga’s path to the Final Four really is, but it is hard to envision a more intriguing opponent than USC. The Bulldogs are favored for a reason. If you are hoping for an all-time memorable upset, it is still wishful thinking. Gonzaga thrives playing in flow and they have the most efficient offense in the country.
Harris, a freshman, who will see his role increase in the coming years, is averaging around 3 points per game, and it is USC’s size across the board that gives them a small leg up when it comes to setting tempo. Defensively, the Trojans can toggle between man and zone, but because of Evan Mobley, standing 7 feet tall with a 7-foot, 4 inch wingspan, his advanced understanding as a rim protector allows USC’s other guys to overplay on the perimeter. Whether or not he blocks a shot, Mobley’s simple presence deters opposing drivers, and he rarely gets in foul trouble. Of course, let us not forget about Isaiah Mobley, who made four threes against Kansas.
Gonzaga is content to let opponents score a bit, and its offense does occasionally run dry in the half court. It is just generally so good that there is always another run coming. The Zags are decisive with the ball and share it like a professional team. If there is one irrefutable lesson from the 2021 NCAA men’s basketball tournament so far, it is that toppling top-seeded Gonzaga is going to require one heck of an effort. But if there is one lesson from the Sweet 16, it might just be that USC is one of a few teams capable of the Herculean feat.
The Trojans will get exactly 43 hours of rest before they meet the tournament’s overwhelming favorite. And if their last two games are any indication, they are ready for battle.
JP Raineri can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.