Just two days before tip-off, the No. 6 seeded Trojans now know who they will face in the first round of the NCAA tournament: the Drake Bulldogs.
For the first time in four years head coach Andy Enfield and company will compete in the Big Dance. The team, heading straight to Indianapolis from the Pac-12 tournament in Las Vegas, had to prepare for two play-in opponents this week.
“It is a little unique in the tournament to prepare for two teams and only play one of them,” Enfield said. “But we also prepare in advance in case we win the game we have to play a second round game on short notice.”
The Bulldogs won over the Wichita State Shockers 53-52 in a scrappy First Four game. After a rocky start offensively, Drake finally came alive behind the arc to pull out the one point victory.
Sophomore guard Joseph Yesufu led the charge for Drake with 21 points, followed by redshirt-senior forward Tremell Murphy with 11. Yesufu is definitely a top contributor for the team, but look out for senior forward ShanQuan Hemphill to pose a powerful threat in the paint against USC.
The Trojans’ No. 6 seed is the highest bid Enfield has received during his coaching tenure at USC. After a promising 2020 season with high postseason potential cut short due to the coronavirus, the program reinvented itself with a slate of transfers including redshirt senior guard Tahj Eaddy and the addition of lottery-pick talent in freshman forward Evan Mobley.
“[We’re] full of excitement, especially for our guys who returned from last season,” Eaddy said. “Unfortunately because of [the coronavirus] we weren’t able to participate in March Madness, so we’re just full of excitement.”
Eaddy is playing out his last year of eligibility and has been the veteran leader of a squad that rose to national prominence with a 22-7 season record. Starting the regular season strong in January then stumbling on the road in February, the Trojans’ road to March Madness hasn’t always been smooth.
The regular season ended in chaotic, March Madness-esque fashion when Colorado pulled out a 72-70 win over USC in the final seconds of the Pac-12 semifinals. While the game cut the program’s chance of bringing home a conference title, Mobley asserted himself as a force to be reckoned with.
Recently named a second-team All-American, the freshman put up a career-high 26 points against Utah in the Pac-12 tournament’s first game and proceeded to match it against the Buffs the following day. Amassing five blocks and nine rebounds on top of his scoring total, Mobley set the tone for his postseason mindset.
“I just know it’s a big stage and big players have to step up to the challenge,” Mobley said. “So I just try to step up to the challenge and do everything I possibly could to help our team win.”
Saturday’s game likely marks the beginning of the end for Mobley, but the freshman only looks to the future and takes each game at a time.
“I just try to focus on what’s in front of me and not focus too much into the future,” Mobley said. “I just try to do what I do on the court to the best of my ability every night.”
Enfield’s coaching staff must also consider a prospective second-round matchup against No. 3 Kansas in the event that USC defeats Drake. Kansas is currently the favored potential matchup.
However, Enfield is confident in the strengths that brought USC to their best season in over a decade.
“You have to focus on yourself and do what you do well,” Enfield said. “Your team, your strengths have gotten you this far to where you are. We’re a sixth seed because we have certain strengths on our basketball team, and we have to play to those strengths, and we have to do what we do well.”
The Trojans tip off at 1:30 p.m. Saturday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, Ind.