Gonzaga is on a mission to win its first National Championship and enters the Elite Eight undefeated. However, this is March Madness and anything can happen. In order to give some hope to our beloved Zags haters, here’s a look at how USC could defeat the Bulldogs. If Gonzaga wins, you’ll see a similar breakdown for Gonzaga’s national semifinal opponent.
It’s probably worth mentioning that I personally hold a preseason futures ticket for Gonzaga to win the title at the best price of 10/1. I will share if/ how much I will be hedging my futures bet for those that are in a similar position.
Evan Mobley can be the best player on the floor
This may be the only time Gonzaga won’t have the clear best player on the floor. The projected top three pick has dominated for USC, averaging 16.3 PPG, 8.8 RPG, and 3.1 BPG. Mobley is the second-rated player on Heat Check’s Gold Star Guide that ranks the most impactful players in college basketball. Gonzaga is a great defensive team, but its weakness lies in the paint. Gonzaga does not have a true rim protector and Mobley has the ability to dominate Drew Timme inside. We saw West Virginia with a similar front court get to the free throw line 33 times against Gonzaga. The Zags have limited front court depth, so using Mobley to attack the interior to create points or get one of the key Zags players in foul trouble will be an effective strategy.
When teams try to take Mobley out of the game using double teams, he has the skill and presence to be an effective passer in the post. Mobley has led the Trojans in assists their past two games, recording five against Kansas and six against Oregon. In the off-day press conference, coach Andy Enfield said Mobley’s unselfishness is his greatest asset;
“He takes what the defense gives,” he said. “He has confidence in his teammates and that goes throughout the whole team. When your most talented offensive player is your most unselfish and willing passer, you can win a lot of games like that.”
Mobley’s ability to create an easy basket by himself or an open three-point opportunity for his teammates changes the landscape of the game. I can see him dominating on defense, and he just covers so much space when USC goes into its zone. USC is going to need a super-human game from Mobley to be competitive and the Trojans can get it.
USC’s elite defense will be Gonzaga’s toughest test
Mobley’s older brother, Isaiah, joining him in the front court gives USC the best interior defense in college basketball. The last time Gonzaga faced this kind of presence, it struggled to score. The only single-digit contest the Zags faced was an early season non-conference matchup against West Virginia, when Oscar Tshewbie was still on the roster. USC’s twin towers on the interior will give Gonzaga’s biggest test of the season. The Zags have the most efficient two-point offense of all-time per Ken Pom, and they rank first in two-point field goals by an obscene margin, shooting 63% from inside the arc. USC counters with the country’s top-ranked two-point defense, allowing teams to shoot 41.3% from two, per Ken Pom.
In their two-point offense, Timme is typically the first scoring read. I don’t like Timme’s matchup against both Mobley brothers. USC (ranked fourth in defensive efficiency) is probably the only defense in the country that can challenge Gonzaga at the rim, and Timmie is not wining one-on-one matchups against Isaiah or Evan. When USC plays a zone, it can take away Jalen Suggs’ iso drives. In addition, Isaiah White, at 6’7, provides elite length when guarding the perimeter and Tahj Eaddy is a good on-ball defender, so Gonzaga’s guards won’t freelance into points ether.
But the main factor that makes USC a live dog in this game is its transition defense. We know Gonzaga loves to run, ranking sixth nationally in adjusted tempo. USC has the luxury of being able to crash the offensive boards with one of the Mobley brothers and the rest of the team can effectively get back on defense. This is the reason they allow the 14th-fewest transition attempts in the country. Controlling the pace is going to be such a huge key for USC here. That starts with getting back on defense.
This entire tournament, Gonzaga has been able to get the shot it wanted. Typically, great offenses beat good defenses in basketball. This USC defense is going to be the biggest test for this immaculate offensive juggernaut. This may be the one game where Gonzaga is going to have to work for its points — it will need to execute its pick and roll offense, hit contested shots, make threes, and Mark Few may have to run a clutch set play or two.
USC’s 3-point shooting
Lastly, USC is going to have to hit shots to beat Gonzaga. Great analysis, right? When USC is getting great play from its guards and hitting threes, it’s one of the top teams in college basketball. Santa Clara transfer Eaddy and senior IWhite are playing out of their minds right now. Eaddy has scored in double figures in seven out of his last eight games and is coming off a season-high 20 points against Oregon. White added 22 points against Oregon and is shooting 7-10 from three during the tournament. As a team, USC is shooting 47.1% from three since the start of the Pac-12 tournament. We mentioned before when teams double Evan Mobley it creates open three-point attempts. Well, the Trojans sank 10 threes against Oregon and 11 against Kansas, with different players stepping up at different junctures. USC doesn’t have elite shooters, but it has been insanely hot will need to stay that way.
Gonzaga’s X-Factor: Andrew Nembhard
Nembhard is the glue guy that makes Gonzaga nearly impossible to stop. He has been perfect with Mark Few’s ball screen offense. Nemdhard takes Gonzaga’s offense to supernova levels by making the perfect reads, shooting efficiently in the mid range, and he is automatic from the free throw line. His ability to drive and create space will force Mobley to move up, and it will create opportunities for back cuts at the rim. I think there is a strong possibility we will see Corey Kispert in foul trouble from guarding Isaiah Mobley and if Suggs is cold, Nembhard will need to step up.
Will I hedge my futures ticket:
If I did not have a future on Gonzaga, I would probably recommend taking the Zags at a discounted number. However, the scene of Andy Enfield at Florida Gulf Coast beating Georgetown as a 20-point underdog keeps replaying in my mind.
USC is going to have to keep up its shooting anomaly, but if USC remains hot from three while Gonzaga goes cold, I will place a small half unit hedge on USC at +370. The Trojans are the only team outside of Baylor that has a slight chance at beating Gonzaga. I am really excited to see how Gonzaga responds to getting tested in this one. The Trojans’ length may give Gonzaga problems early, and a hot USC shooting start will allow them to jump out to a lead. At that point, we will see what the Zags are really made of.