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Gonzaga-USC Preview: West Coast Best Coast

Trip the Final Four on the line

Sarah Stier | Getty Images

The Pac-12 has three teams in the Elite Eight. Gonzaga makes a fourth team on the West Coast, and this is the first time in Tournament history that four West Coast schools have made it this far. Gonzaga is appearing in their fourth Elite Eight in the last six tournaments. USC is appearing in their fourth Elite Eight in program history and first since 2001. The Trojans have not made the Final Four since 1954. Gonzaga has not faced USC a single time in the Mark Few era, though they were supposed to play in the non-conference this season before the pandemic altered the schedules. What better time to have that game rescheduled than on Tuesday night with a trip to the Final Four on the line?

Game date: Tuesday, March 30

Game time: 4:15 p.m. PT

TV channel: TBS

Online: NCAA March Madness Live

Location: Lucas Oil Stadium, Indianapolis

Meet the Opponent

USC Trojans, 25-7, KenPom #6

The two most dominant teams in this tournament have been USC and Gonzaga. The Trojans have decimated Drake, Kansas, and Oregon by a combined 64 points. That is the second largest margin of any six seed or worse in NCAA Tournament history. Obviously everyone knows about the Mobley brothers. Evan is going to be a top five pick in the NBA draft and his brother Isaiah is a freak athlete who has extended his shooting range as the season has gone on. But the real reason USC is dominating is because their perimeter players have shot the lights out. Against Kansas and Oregon, the Trojans shot 21-for-35 from beyond the arc. After having three games with double digit made threes in the regular season, they just accomplished it in back-to-back games.

What to Watch For

How does Gonzaga guard USC

Based on law of averages, you would think that hot shooting has to regress to the mean. Santa Clara transfer Tahj Eaddy is their most reliable guard and best shooting threat. Coming into the tournament, he was the only guy on the team averaging more than one made three per contest. Once the tournament hit, Isaiah White has had a coming out party. He hit 17 threes in his first 29 games this season, but just went 7-for-9 beyond the arc against Kansas and Oregon. Isaiah Mobley hit a career-high four triples against Kansas. Drew Peterson is 4-for-5 in the tournament. In short, they’re shooting out of their minds. Can Gonzaga slow them down? If they do, they’ll win the game. Evan Mobley has the ability to score 25+ any night, but if his guards aren’t knocking down jumpers, then Gonzaga wins this game regardless. So the question, really, is can USC stay hot or is a big time regression game approaching?

USC’s defense

This is unquestionably the most challenging and unique defense Gonzaga will face this season. USC has the top ranked two-point field goal defense in the country. Teams shoot just 41.5 percent inside the arc against them thanks to the size and length of the Mobley brothers and Peterson. Gonzaga, on the other hand, has the best two-point offense in the history of the sport. They’re shooting 63.9 percent from two-point range and just shot 76 percent against Creighton.

What will be interesting in this game is how much zone USC plays. They only played it 15 percent of the time during the season, but after the first 10 minutes or so against Oregon, they went to it exclusively because they could not guard Oregon very well man-to-man. I’m not sure they can guard Gonzaga very well man-to-man either. That would require one of the Mobley brothers to guard Corey Kispert on the perimeter, which feels like quite the ask for either of them, no matter how talented they are. Also, Jalen Suggs and Andrew Nembhard have a sizable advantage on Eaddy if that’s who Andy Enfield wants guarding Gonzaga’s two point guards. So, they may default into that zone that we saw on Sunday night.

The zone goes sideline-to-sideline in the back because Peterson and the Mobley brothers run 6’8 - 6’10 - 7’0. It’s incredibly difficult to find any easy looks at the rim, so Gonzaga is going to have to hit some jumpers. However, USC does not force turnovers in that zone. Nor do they rebound particularly well defensively. So if Gonzaga takes care of the ball, I like their chances to get some decent looks.

The only other Gonzaga opponents that played a substantial amount of zone are Iowa, San Francisco, and Norfolk State. But none were as active and rangy as this one. For example, here is Gonzaga carving up Iowa’s zone from earlier this season. They went 4-for-5 in the five possessions Iowa went to it, and they never went back again because of how effective the Bulldogs were.

It may mean something that Kispert, Joel Ayayi, Anton Watson, and Drew Timme all played against Washington’s zone last season. Gonzaga scored 1.06 points per possession and won the game. I would expect Ayayi to man the middle of the zone most of the time because of his patience and vision, but it’s a spot where multiple GU players can excel.

With a trip to the Final Four on the line and one day of prep, I tend to favor the more experienced program and the better team. Luckily, Gonzaga is both. USC has not played a team with this kind of speed and tempo all season, and that is impossible to prep for until you experience it in person. Gonzaga has not faced the length and shot blocking ability inside that USC has, and that is nearly impossible to prep for until you witness it in person. It should be a fun one.