Yes – it’s that time of year again. It’s time to fill out your brackets, with the 2023 NCAA Tournament tipping off later this week.
The NCAA Tourney can separate the men from the boys, a proving ground for the best of the best. And for some, it marks the final time they’ll step on the floor in a collegiate capacity.
Evan Mobley arrived at USC with pro scouts already salivating for his entry into the NBA. Before he ever played a college game, he was perceived as a top-5 pick. And in that single season with the Trojans, the soft-spoken seven-footer from San Diego did not disappoint.
Other schools made a run at Mobley – Stanford, UCLA and Washington all made their pitch. But with his father and older brother – current Cleveland Charge center, Isaiah – already part of the USC program, the choice was an easy one for the five-star recruit.
Andy Enfield’s Trojans were supposed to be in a rebuilding mode that year – predicted to finish around sixth in the Pac-12 in 2020-21. But the so-called experts had to recalibrate their predictions once they got a look at the younger Mobley, who would finish regular season as the Pac-12’s top rebounder (8.7rpg) and shot-blocker (3.0bpg) while averaging 16.8ppg, sixth-best mark in the conference.
When it was all said and done, Mobley was named Pac-12 Player of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year and Freshman of the Year. The only other player to have accomplished that feat in a major conference was Anthony Davis in 2012.
Mobley was outstanding in the Pac-12 Tournament leading into the Big Dance – including a heroic double-overtime performance against Utah, scoring 24 points after halftime and putting the Trojans on his shoulders for the win.
In the NCAA Tournament, USC began their run by coasting past Drake in the First Round. From there, they really began opening eyes – blasting one of the most prestigious programs in college hoops, Kansas, by 34 points at Hinkle FieldHouse in Indiana.
In the next round, the Trojans handled the Pac-12’s regular season champs, Oregon, dropping the Ducks by two touchdowns to reach the Elite 8.
But their run would come to an end when they faced an undefeated Gonzaga team that jumped out to a huge early lead and never looked back – handing the Trojans a 19-point defeat and ending Evan Mobley’s brief but memorable college career.
In this year’s initial installment of Tournament Tales, we sat down the Cavaliers stellar sophomore to talk about his magnificent March run …
It’s been written that you weren’t originally big into basketball as a youngster. That you were more into puzzles, Rubik’s cube, etc. What finally got you going on hoops?
Evan Mobley: Well, I was always involved in it, always into it. But I did have interests in other things.
But I felt like I was good, and I had an opportunity to really build on it. So, I decided to take it more seriously as I got older.
All that other stuff definitely helped. I feel like it builds your intelligence and make you smarter in different ways that you can actually use in a game – being able to calculate things faster. There’s a lot of reading and reaction in basketball.
In high school, you played against top competition in Los Angeles – guys like the Ball brothers, Onyeka Okongwu, Zaire Williams. How much did that help you at the next level?
Mobley: I feel like it helped a lot, living in California and growing up in L.A. There’s a lot of good hoopers in that area.
So, playing against guys like that helped improved my game and helped sharpen my skill level. I mean, iron sharpens iron.
You’re such an outstanding big man-to-big man passer. How much did playing alongside your brother, Isaiah, help you improve that skill?
Mobley: It helped a lot. Me and him played together all the way up to college, so having another big next to me like J.A., it just comes naturally to me. But playing with my brother is really where I developed my big-to-big passing skills.
Going into your freshman season, USC was predicted to finish as low as 6th in the Pac-12. How were you able to exceed expectations?
Mobley: I actually felt like we were going to be good into the season. Obviously, other people didn’t.
But I feel like we had a good team around us. I felt like I was ready. And some of the new guys we got, they transferred in and no one really knew their names, but they played a big part, guys like Tahj Eaddy, Isaiah White.
We were just a scrappy team, and we really got it done at the end of the day.
You were hitting a little bit of a “freshman wall” right before the Pac-12 Tournament before turning things around in a double-OT win over Utah. What changed?
Mobley: That was a big game for us. We wanted to keep going further in the tournament, so I really locked in. I had some big defensive plays, some big offensively plays, and was really aggressive throughout the whole game.
The 2021 Tournament still was enforcing COVID rules, with only 25 percent capacity in the arena. Did not having fans in the stands affect you at all?
Mobley: Not really, because that’s how it was all year. That season, we didn’t have a crowd at all, so I was kind of used to it. There was a little bit of a crowd, so it was a little better than normal. But I just focused on the game.
After crushing Drake, you ran into Kansas – an NCAA heavyweight who won it all the following year. How locked in were you for that matchup?
Mobley: We went into that game really focused. We knew it was going to be a big game and we came out, everyone firing on all cylinders. And we just continued that the whole game and by the end of it, we wound up winning by like 30 or something like that.
It was a big win and I think it was like the worst loss that they ever had in the Tournament.
We were just rolling at the point and tried to keep it going.
What was the team feeling once you reached that level of the Tournament?
Mobley: We were feeling really good. You feel like once you get on a roll, you just keep getting more and more confidence. And when you have that confidence, anything can happen.
When you reach the Sweet 16, you run into a Pac-12 squad in Oregon. What’s the mindset facing the Ducks again?
Mobley: We beat them in the regular season, actually. But that season, we only played them once.
They ended up winning the (Pac-12) Tournament because of winning percentage. They couldn’t play all of their games because of COVID. It was weird: we wound up winning more games than them total, but our percentage was worse.
So, that was a ‘get-back’ game as well. We were locked in again on that one and ended up getting the dub.
USC’s run finally ends against that undefeated Gonzaga team. How were they able to knock you off?
Mobley: They were a great team back then. They had a lot of great players on that team.
Everyone was ready for that one, as well, but they got off to a quick start and they’re a team that plays really fast. We really tried to slow the game down. But after that quick start, I feel like we played a good game overall.
I pretty much knew that would be my only season at SC, so I was just trying to enjoy the moment and just leave it all out there.