By Rich Ruben
A Trojan player wearing No. 4 was on the court last week against Utah, but he wasn’t the “real” Evan Mobley. The real Evan scores in double figures every game. The imposter didn’t attempt a shot in the first half and was fouled on his only two second half attempts. In the two games this week, USC will likely need Evan to play well in order to have a chance to win.
The Trojans (6-2) so far haven’t been as creative with Evan as they were last year with Onyeka Okongwu. Evan can score from more places on the court, but the coaching staff needs to design plays for him inside like they did for Big O. A second defender will almost always come when he gets the ball, though generally he is not double teamed before that. If they double early, Evan is a good passer and can find the open teammate.
The Trojans haven’t used pick and rolls or otherwise tried to force a smaller player to guard Evan inside. When he gets the ball 10-12 feet from the rim he usually tries to dribble and back down the defender which almost always allows time for a second defender to help and sometimes results in a turnover. Evan has the ability to shoot over any defender. If he gets the ball 10 feet from the basket with a defender behind him he can rise for a jump shot before the second defender arrives. If the defender fronts him a teammate can pass to the rim. Bottom line: Evan needs more touches inside and he needs to make quicker decisions when he gets the ball.
The Trojans Are Having Success On Offense
The Trojans have made over 50% of their shots in five games and over 45% in all six wins. Evan, Drew Peterson and Chevez Goodwin are making over half of their shots. Isaiah Mobley and Isaiah White are shooting 46% and Tajh Eaddy 44% and 41% from three.
USC ranks 62nd in offensive efficiency, making a good 48% from the field and 36.7% from three. The team free throws percentage is a horrible 60.5%. Surprisingly they made 17-21 (82%) from the line in the UConn loss; they lost that game because they couldn’t make shots from anywhere else (35%).
There has not been any announcement whether Ethan Anderson will play this week. It could be a game time decision. If he does play he may be on a minutes limit. If healthy, he would likely draw uber quick Remy Martin at ASU when the Trojans play man defense.
The Trojans are in Tucson Thursday night to play the Wildcats and play ASU late Saturday afternoon. Both teams have had a surprising start to the season, one better than expected and one not as good.
Any discussion about Arizona must begin with the FBI investigation, Sean Miller, and the self imposed ban on post season play this year. From the information made public Arizona is one of a couple schools which appear to have the biggest exposure with the NCAA. The tape of the infamous phone call in which Miller seems to be discussing a payment to get top recruit Deandre Ayton puts Miller and Arizona in a precarious position, but Miller has denied any personal involvement in offering or paying money to Ayton or anyone associated with him and the school has stood behind him. By playing Ayton the entire season Arizona thumbed their collective noses at the NCAA. When it appeared that the Wildcats would be not as strong as usual this year, they self imposed a post season ban. It will be interesting to see if NCAA decides a one year ban is enough and whether there will be any penalty directed at Miller.
Compare Arizona’s situation with USC’s. It has been alleged that former Trojan Associate Head Coach Tony Bland offered money through an intermediary to Taeshon Cherry and D’Anthony Melton. The Trojans released Cherry from his letter of intent as soon as the probe became public and Cherry wound up at ASU. USC initially suspended Melton when the allegations arose after D’Anthony’s freshman season. From the outset D’Anthony vehemently denied the allegations and a thorough review by the very large Trojan compliance department concluded in December that neither D’Anthony or his family received anything. Even so, he was not allowed to play and was forced to sit out the entire season.
Miller has won 5 conference titles in his first 11 seasons in Tucson and his teams have made three Elite 8s. He has an overall .744 winning percentage at Arizona and is 142-60 in conference games entering this year.
The Cats are off to a 9-1 start and are 3-1 in conference play, yet there isn’t any national hype so far surrounding Arizona. They have an almost complete new roster which might explain why they are not getting noticed. Another explanation might be their weak non conference schedule. When has a 9-1 Arizona team not been ranked in the top 25? This week they are 31st in the AP poll.
Miller seemingly went everywhere to find players. Arizona has players from France, Turkey, Estonia and twins from Lithuania. Two of their better players are from Cameroon (Christian Koloko) and Montreal (Benedict Mathurin). Arizona is 39th in offensive efficiency and 52nd in defensive efficiency (the Trojans are 38th). Their RPI ranking is 44, five spots ahead of the Trojans. Against common opponents the Wildcats beat Montana 70-64; the Trojans beat the Grizzlies 76-62. The Wildcats also beat Colorado by 14. In other conference games Arizona lost to a rapidly improving Stanford team on the road, and swept the Washington schools on the road, needing two overtimes to outlast the Cougars.
The Wildcats have made 45% of their shots this season, 36% from three and 70% from the line. Most of their scoring comes from the backcourt. Four players are averaging in double figures led by 6’1” junior guard James Akinjo, a Georgetown transfer and former Big East freshman of the year. He is averaging 14 points and a team leading 5 assists but is only making 36% of his shots. Akinjo is the team leader and when he plays well this team is good. Jamari Baker is averaging almost 14 points and has made 42% of his shots and 86% from the line. Freshman Mathurin is 6’7” and averages almost 11 points and 5 rebounds. He has been very good connecting on 49% of his shots, 42% from three and 83% from the line. The fourth guard is 6’3” senior Terrell Brown. He averages 8 points and over 3 rebounds and assists and is converting 47% of his shots and has made 8-16 from downtown.
The Wildcats also have size. 6’11” sophomore forward Jordan Brown averages 10 points and 6 rebounds. 7’1” sophomore center Koloko averages 5 points and over 5 boards. There is not much depth behind them in the front court.
Arizona State Preview
The Sun Devils were expected to be in the hunt for the PAC 12 title this season but they have started only 4-3. In their only conference game they beat a bad Cal team on the road 70-62, and have losses against the two biggest name non conference opponents, Villanova and San Diego State. They beat Grand Canyon by 1. The Devils have not played since December 16 due to Covid restrictions. They host UCLA on Thursday before the Trojans visit.
Last season ASU finished in a third place tie with the Trojans in conference play. Head coach Bobby Hurley is in his sixth season and has a 43-47 conference record and has not made it out of the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Describing Hurley as obnoxious is too gentle. He argues literally every call, stomps in front of the bench and scorers’ table and spends most of each game in one of his two classic poses: arms folded with a scowl on his face, or screaming with his arms in the air. Sometimes he mixes the two together.
The Devils are a poor 126th in offense efficiency and very bad 226th in defensive efficiency. If their guards are not shooting well they struggle. ASU’s RPI is 117. They are making 45% of their shots, 33% from three and 69% from the line.
Hurley and the Devils were surprised when three year big man Romello White entered the transfer portal; White is now at Ole Miss. So far they have not replaced his interior defense or offense. They were going to be a guard oriented team anyway but now they have trouble matching up with big teams on both ends. 6’10’ sophomore John Olmsted has not played this year and 6’9” freshman forward Chris Oster is averaging only 3.4 points, 3.1 rebounds and makes 35% from the line.
Former Trojan signee Cherry has not developed as expected. The 6’8” junior forward averages 4 points and 2 boards and makes only 35% of his shots. He is yet to attempt a free throw this season. 6’8” freshman forward Marcus Bagley is the younger brother of former Duke star Marvin. A lot was expected from Bagley and he has come thru, averaging 13 points and almost 6 rebounds. He is only making 36% of his shots but has been successful on 40% from three.
ASU is led by three guards who are off to excellent starts. 6’0” senior Remy Martin is lightening quick and made some pre season All American teams. He is playing well, but has not yet met the very high expectations. He leads the team with almost 17 points, 3.6 assists and 1.3 steals, but also averages 2.3 turnovers. Martin is making a very good 56% of his shots and 84% from the line but has made only 27% of his threes.
Fellow senior guard 6’2” Alonzo Verge had a good season last year and is shooting at a high level again this year. He averages over 15 points, 4 boards and 3 assists, making 42% of his shots and 43% from three. Surprisingly he is only successful on 62% of his foul shots. Freshman guard Josh Christopher is expected to be a one and done player. The Trojans had recruited Christopher hard. He is 6’5” and averages 16.9 points and 4.6 rebounds. He has made 49% of his shots and 87% of his free throws, but is only making 23% from three.
If the Trojans want to contend for the conference title they must win one of these games and possibly both after the home loss to Colorado. USC has not had much success at McKale, but without fans the Wildcats won’t have their useful very loud crowd and home court will not matter as much.
The deciding factor in both games will likely be whether the Trojans bigs or the opponent’s guards dominate. Both are games are winnable. The Trojans will need Evan to play well and with energy at both ends. Although Arizona has some size, the Mobley brothers are better scorers, more athletic, and will present more problems for guards driving to the rim. The Trojans also have good front court depth with Chevez Goodwin. The Cats have players who can score from three and the Trojans will need to run them off the line. It will be hard for Arizona to win if Akinjo doesn’t have a big game.
It’s much the same against ASU. The Devils’ bigs will be seriously outmanned, but they have more backcourt talent than U of A. Martin and Christopher have struggled from beyond the arc and the Trojans may be content early to defend the drive as opposed to trying to limit their three point shots. The Trojans do not want Verge or Bagley to get open looks from three. Martin is one of the quickest players in the country and has a good pull-up and floater game and can get to the rim despite his size. The Trojan front court cannot allow Martin to get to his favorite spots.
The Trojans are capable of winning with a similar game plan in both games. On defense they need to identify the three point shooters and not allow open threes, use their size advantage and play solid defense inside, and do a better job on the defensive boards. On offense the Trojans need to get Evan involved early and he needs to take advantage and help USC win the inside game. USC also needs to limit turnovers and get good shots for Drew, Noah and Tajh. The X factor in both games might be Isaiah White. He is the energizer bunny and is a tough matchup inside and on the boards; he is too quick for bigger defenders and too physical for guards.
It isn’t often the Trojans have a legitimate chance to sweep the Arizona road trip. This week they have the opportunity to win both and I think they will.