USC hopes to build off strong run in 2021 NCAA tournament

When Evan Mobley committed to USC in the fall of 2019, becoming the highest-rated men’s basketball recruit ever to do so, he couldn’t possibly have imagined what awaited his only college season.

A pandemic. Ever-present safety protocols. Daily testing. Empty arenas. Mobley never spoke of any grand designs for his year at USC, but certainly, none of this was what he had in mind.

And yet, as the end of that single, special season arrived suddenly on Tuesday night, the star 7-footer beamed from his place at the still-virtual postgame podium in Indianapolis. Mobley could’ve joined a basketball blueblood. He could’ve jumped to the G League. Instead, he and his Trojans teammates carried a perennially overlooked program deeper into March than any other USC team in 20 years.

Picked to finish sixth in the Pac-12, USC reached the Elite Eight for just the second time in 67 years.

It ended there, quickly and quietly, at the hands of 30-0 Gonzaga. But the 85-66 loss wouldn’t mar one of the most memorable seasons in USC history. Not for Mobley, at least.

“It was everything I hoped it would be,” he said. “We fell a little short, but I’m glad we made it this far.”

The question now, after a season spent reigniting hope in the program, is whether USC is capable of going any further now without Mobley. Soon, he will declare for the NBA draft, where he’s expected to be a top-three pick. His brother, Isaiah, may very well follow, after a stellar NCAA tournament in which he averaged 16 points and shot 61%.

The churn might not stop there. Tahj Eaddy, the Trojans’ second-leading scorer, will be 25 before the next college season begins, the clock ticking on his chances of playing professionally. Isaiah White and Chevez Goodwin, both graduate transfers entering their fifth year of eligibility, might also be ready to move on.

A team pieced together through the transfer portal to fit around a singular prospect might have to be put back together again. Sans the freakish 7-footer.

It won’t be easy. But neither was this past season, generational prospect aside. USC had just three returners on the roster. Coach Andy Enfield convinced four transfers to commit without even seeing the campus in person. The team didn’t play together until September, and when it did, it opened practice outside, each player socially distanced, dribbling and shooting his own basketballs.

USC’s Evan Mobley dunks the ball against Kansas in the first half of their second-round game of the NCAA tournament on March 22 in Indianapolis.

(Andy Lyons / Getty Images)

“We had a brand new team,” Enfield said. “In my coaching career, I’ve never seen a team develop a chemistry and a culture on and off the court like this team has. They improved dramatically from the start of training camp throughout the season, kept getting better and better. I think you saw that in the NCAA tournament. We became a very good basketball team.”

It took time for the Trojans to become the team that rolled through three opponents on its way to the Elite Eight. The offense struggled for long stretches at the start of the season. But Evan Mobley proved to be a stabilizing force in the middle, and eventually, the pieces around him began to fit. USC won 13 of 14 games shortly after returning from its only COVID-19 stoppage of the season. After it stumbled in the final weeks of the regular season, it found its stride again in the tournament and finished the season with a 25-8 record.

It’s a credit to Enfield, who spent the seven previous seasons building to this point. But where he takes USC from here will be the true test of his ability to build a program.

There’s no telling how the Trojans might look next season. Not this early in the offseason, at least. At this time last year, USC had barely made contact with the core of its roster.

If Isaiah Mobley returns for another season to build off his strong March, USC would at least have a talented scorer to build around. Otherwise, the transfer portal is as stocked as ever with prospects in search of opportunity. Perhaps Enfield finds the same perfect puzzle pieces again.

But the 7-foot linchpin of the Trojans’ Elite Eight run will be long gone, and Enfield, in his ninth season, will be left to prove that USC basketball hasn’t run headlong into its ceiling.