NCAA Tourney Sleeper Pick: The USC Trojans

With a superstar freshman in 7-footer Evan Mobley, Southern Cal could be a darkhorse betting option
USC Sleeper NCAA pick
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Most college basketball seasons, little is seen or heard from the West Coast unless it involves Gonzaga or the traditional blueblood Pac-12 programs of Arizona and UCLA.

The top-ranked and undefeated ‘Zags have been a known quantity all season and are the team to beat for the upcoming NCAA tournament. Arizona announced a self-imposed ban on postseason play in December, leaving the Wildcats an afterthought. The Bruins will be in the field of 68, but as a team in the middle of the pack. They likely will meet their demise against one of the nation’s best in the first weekend — perhaps even Gonzaga.

Across town from UCLA and Westwood, however, another Los Angeles team has a chance to make some noise this month when college basketball descends upon Indiana. The USC Trojans are in the mix for the Pac-12 title and, with the right breaks, could find themselves among the teams advancing to Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.

There is plenty of value to be had on the Trojans considering how Gonzaga and Baylor have separated themselves from the field in terms of NCAA tournament title contenders. BetMGM has the shortest odds for USC, and it can be argued its +2500 listing is an outlier considering everyone else has the Trojans +5000 or longer. William Hill and PointsBet are most bearish on USC at +6000 and +7000, respectively.

There is also good value on the Trojans as a Final Four team. FanDuel lists them at +750, while BetRivers and Barstool Sportsbook both list them at +1150. DraftKings has an over/under seeding of 5.5, split -118 over and -106 to the under.

A look at some numbers

The Trojans enter their season finale versus UCLA with a 20-6 overall record and 14-5 in Pac-12 play. They are part of a four-way fight for the No. 1 seed with Oregon, Colorado, and UCLA, and a victory would assure them of no worse than a No. 3 seed for the upcoming conference tournament.

In terms of advanced metrics, USC has the two things highly coveted when considering NCAA tournament champion hopefuls — a good, efficient offense, and a standout defense. The Trojans rank in the top 30 on both sides of the ball in terms of KenPom efficiency at 28th and 15th, respectively, a claim only 12 Division I teams can make.

Where coach Andy Enfield’s team stands out is on the defensive side inside the 3-point arc. USC is a long team, anchored by 7-foot freshman phenom Evan Mobley and his 6-foot-10 sophomore brother Isaiah Mobley. At 6-8, Drew Peterson rounds out the starting frontcourt, and there’s more size in the backcourt with 6-7 guard Isaiah White, while 6-9 forwards Chevez Goodwin and Max Agbonkpolo are top options off the bench.

USC is limiting opponents to 41.8 percent shooting from 2-point range, good for third in the country, and that contributes to a defensive efficiency of holding teams to 91.5 points per 100 possessions — ranking 15th in that category. That size also helps offensively, as the Trojans claim 36.9% of their offensive rebounds available and average 112.9 points per 100 possessions.

Mobile Mobley

Arguably the second-best freshman in college basketball behind Oklahoma State’s Cade Cunningham, Evan Mobley has been asked to carry most of the offensive load for USC. He has delivered, averaging 16.2 points while shooting 58.2 percent. The 7-footer also averages 8.5 rebounds and 2.2 assists, and his 2.8 blocked shots per game rank eighth in the nation.

His size is an obvious problem for opponents, but so is the way Enfield utilizes him offensively. Mobley has the handle to break down opponents off the dribble with either hand, and he is comfortable in isolation sets driving to the basket. Once he turns the corner on a defender, that 7-foot-5 wingspan allows him to shoot over anyone.

Mobley is unselfish to a fault, and on a team shooting 46% overall and 35% from 3-point range, the Trojans will need him to demand the ball in crunch situations. USC will also require consistent guard play to make a deep NCAA tournament run, something that has been an issue throughout the season.

Question marks and concerns

There are some points to ponder before putting down money on the Trojans, including the heavy playing time Evan Mobley has logged this season. The freshman is averaging 33.5 minutes, and USC’s 79-42 blowout win over Stanford on Wednesday night marked the first time in nearly two months he did not play at least 30 minutes.

Then there is Mobley’s unselfishness, which is not a criticism but a big concern in this instance. It is difficult to flip a switch for any college player to actively demand the ball, more so for a freshman. Mobley’s assists totals would definitely be higher if his teammates had shot better from the perimeter. Enfield may need to drive home the point to his star that a contested drive into the lane, given his size and finishing skills, may still be a better shot than a drive-and-kick to the perimeter.

Non-conference scheduling was challenging for practically every high-major Division I team this season, and USC is no exception. The best win outside the Pac-12 was a 79-53 thumping of BYU on a neutral floor, but the Trojans also followed up that game with a 61-58 loss to UConn two days later in a virtual road game at Mohegan Sun in Connecticut. They have a 2-2 record facing conference foes expected to join them in the field of 68, getting swept by Colorado while beating Oregon and UCLA at home.

The biggest hindrance to a deep run for USC may be the lack of NCAA tournament experience. Enfield has made two appearances with the Trojans in seven seasons — the last coming in 2017 — after gaining national prominence in 2013 while leading Florida Gulf Coast (a.k.a “Dunk City”) on its run to the Sweet 16 as a No. 15 seed. But the only player on his current roster with any such experience is Goodwin, a reserve in 2018-19 on Wofford’s 30-win team that reached the second round.

Conclusion

This is a high-risk, high-reward pick that could have you either ripping up your ticket on the Friday afternoon of the first round or sweating out a regional final if you take the Final Four option. The first thing to hope for is USC being placed on the bottom half of the bracket as a No. 6 or No. 7 seed, which would allow it to avoid a potential matchup with Gonzaga or Baylor until the regional final at the earliest.

But there are other factors that could consign the Trojans to an early exit — a good perimeter-oriented offensive team can negate USC’s defensive length inside and cause problems. Another factor should the Trojans claim a No. 5 or No. 6 seed is the possibility of playing a team coming off a First Four victory and in rhythm having shaken off its tournament jitters.

Among that group of teams are NCAA tournament royalty Duke and Michigan State — teams that have winning March DNA and not only have faced players as talented as Mobley, but have players nearly as talented as Mobley.

Still, Mobley is a unique talent in college basketball, and unique at this level causes problems for opponents. In a completely topsy-turvy season, USC could wind up being one of the teams that makes the NCAA tournament live up to its March Madness moniker.

Photo courtesy Stan Szeto/USA TODAY

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