USC is hardly a one-hit wonder. This program has had staying power. It has multiple NBA players, including a No. 3 draft pick in 2021. It made the Elite Eight last March in the Indianapolis bubble. But the start here in 2021-22 was not in the plans.
Being one of the two remaining undefeated teams with No. 1 Baylor was hardly projected. The Trojans lost Evan Mobley, yes the No. 3 pick, and their second-leading scorer Tahj Eaddy. They played four of their first six games away from home. They had a lengthy COVID-19 pause that canceled a road game against Oklahoma State in Oklahoma City and two Pac-12 games against Arizona State and Arizona at home, leaving them without playing a game from Dec. 18 to Jan. 6.
And yet here they are: 13-0 heading into Tuesday night’s game at Stanford, with a No. 5 ranking — the best since 1974 — and potentially on track to tie their best start in school history of 17-0 from 1910!
“We didn’t expect to be undefeated in January,’’ said USC coach Andy Enfield. “But we are. It’s not something you expect. It’s very hard to do. We’ve had a few close games. We had to play well. We had a pause. But we stayed focused.’’
Enfield points to the upperclassmen, led by juniors Isaiah Mobley (Evan Mobley’s brother), Ethan Anderson and Max Agbonkpolo, seniors Drew Peterson, Isaiah White and Chevez Goodwin and Memphis transfer Boogie Ellis as well as sophomore Joshua Morgan.
“We’ve got a lot of experience of players who have played in big games,’’ said Enfield.
The defense has been one of the main reasons the Trojans are undefeated, holding the first 12 opponents under 40 percent. USC is limiting opposing teams to 27.5 percent.
“We’ve been a top 10 defensive team the last three seasons,’’ said Enfield. “We drill it extensively. The players have bought into being individual defenders and come together with team defense.’’
Losing Evan Mobley was thought to be a blow defensively. But USC has great length with the 6-11 Morgan, 6-10 Isaiah Mobley and 6-9 Goodwin.
The two main bigs — Isaiah Mobley and Goodwin — have increased production. Mobley has gone from 9.9 points to 15 while Goodwin went from 5.6 to 13 a game.
What’s the reason for the jump for Mobley?
“Just confidence,’’ said Mobley. “I continued to work hard and challenged myself to get better every day.’’
The schedule easily could have sent the Trojans sideways. Sure, playing at Temple and at Florida Gulf Coast isn’t the same as heading to Purdue or Duke. Still, these were early road games across the country and playing at FGCU came with immense pressure since it was Enfield’s former stop that he took to the Sweet 16.
The two neutral games were in Anaheim and a win over Saint Joseph’s was followed by a win over San Diego State.
“It gave us confidence to compete on a neutral court,’’ said Enfield.
The Trojans are the afterthought in the Pac-12 again. UCLA and Arizona are getting the national love — as they should, but it shouldn’t be at the expense of USC.
Adding Ellis was the final missing piece, a player that was desperately needed to compliment Ethan Anderson. He has fit in perfectly, something not easy to do out of the portal.
“Coach Andy allowed me to be myself and create for others and score and show my ability,’’ said Ellis. “The chemistry that we have has us playing together, playing well defensively. Another reason why we’re undefeated is we have a lot of veterans on this team who have been through the wars. We understand what it takes to win.’’
The Trojans are 15th in KenPom, in the top 25 in offensive and defensive efficiency. USC is 12th in the NET. The Trojans are on a path toward a top four-line seed and could be in a position to make another deep NCAA tournament run.
Nothing is a given but the Trojans follow Tuesday’s game at Stanford with scheduled home games against Oregon State and Oregon before going to Colorado and Utah. Stanford and Cal come to LA, before a game at Arizona State. USC doesn’t meet fellow top 10 teams Arizona (in Tucson) and UCLA until Feb. 5 and 12, respectively.
“We’ve worked together and we’ve followed our principles on offense and defense,’’ said Mobley. “We’ve stayed locked in. We’re a mature team that wants to see each other succeed and that’s why we’ve been so successful.’’