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Gonzaga Basketball

Gonzaga tangles with USC’s stingy zone for spot in Final Four

Southern California guard Isaiah White, left, guard Drew Peterson, right, and Oregon guard Chris Duarte reach for a loose ball in a Pac-12 game Feb. 22 in Los Angeles.  (Associated Press)

This game was originally scheduled for Nov. 17 at the Phil Knight Invitational in Portland, but it joined a long list of contests canceled in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

It’s back on – Gonzaga vs. USC – and the matchup looks far more intriguing now in late March. The stakes don’t get much bigger than Tuesday’s clash at Lucas Oil Stadium.

The top-ranked Zags (29-0) are one win from the program’s second Final Four and three wins from an unbeaten season and the national championship.

Standing in their way is USC, which is in the Elite Eight for just the second time in 60 years. The Trojans haven’t been to a Final Four since 1954.

The Zags have been an unstoppable force offensively, leading the country in scoring and 2-point accuracy (63.9%), the latter tops in Ken Pomeroy’s two-decades plus of statistical analysis.

The Trojans have been an immovable object with the nation’s best 2-point defense (41.5%) this season. They’ve been even tougher to solve in March Madness with a zone defense that has baffled Drake, Kansas and Oregon.

“It’s basically what I’d call the Syracuse zone pressed up,” Zags coach Mark Few said. “They seem to be playing it for long stretches of the game. It just makes for a difficult rhythm on offense. We had the luxury this week of getting some time for both them and Oregon before preparing for Creighton and that helped a little bit.

“It is a little bit of a unique entity. It’s not what you see every night out.”

USC is the tallest team in the country, according to KenPom, with eight players 6-foot-7 or taller. Four are usually on the court together. The Trojans use their size to disrupt 3-point shooters and still have paint protection with 7-foot freshman Evan Mobley and his brother, Isaiah, a 6-10 sophomore.

Coach Andy Enfield estimated his team has played 90% man defense, but “the last three games we played three very similar teams in Drake, Kansas and Oregon, meaning they had four guards at least, sometimes five, where they tried to dribble-drive us and shoot a lot of 3s.”

“So we went zone out of necessity because we’re big. I don’t like going small too often. Our defense is much better when we stay big.”

Drake and Kansas both shot 29% from the field. Oregon trailed by 15 at half after shooting 30%.

The Zags can expect to see a fair amount of zone since they’ve gone smaller with 6-5 Andrew Nembhard in the starting lineup and 6-7 Corey Kispert moving to the ‘4.’

“They’ve got a lot big bodies in there and they’re athletic and super connected,” Kispert said of USC’s zone. “The reads are a little different, but at the end of the day it’s basketball whether it’s zone or man. It’s part of the reason why this offense is so good and why we feel we’re elite with our playmakers is that no matter what teams throw at us, we’ve seen it before and we can handle it.”

There are several marquee individual matchups, led by Mobley vs. Drew Timme.

Mobley, who played with GU freshman Dominick Harris at Rancho Christian High in Temecula, California, can influence games without scoring a bunch of points.

Timme has been efficient all season, including a 29-point outing against Virginia and 7-1 center Jay Huff and 25 points in the season opener against 6-10 David McCormack and Kansas.

“All the facial hair, giggling and laughing and celebrations aside, Drew’s a dog,” Kispert said. “Drew can play with anybody and beat anybody. He’s been showing that on full display all tournament long.”

The Trojans have been in a groove offensively, too. They handed Kansas its worst NCAA Tournament loss and shot 57.4% despite a lengthy second-half lull against Oregon.

They drained 21 3s in those wins, including four by Isaiah Mobley against Kansas and four by 6-7 Isaiah White vs. the Ducks.

“That’s probably the dilemma you face defensively is you have to give (the Mobley brothers) a lot of attention,” Few said, “but at this point you have to give equal attention to how the others are playing, especially the way they’re shooting from the 3 line.”