Pac-12 rivals clash for the final spot in the Elite Eight
Oregon and USC battled for the Pac-12 regular-season championship before the Ducks finally flew away with the crown. It seems only fitting that the two conference foes clash again in the Sweet 16 with a trip to the Elite Eight on the line.
No. 7 seed Oregon (21-6) finally got to make its 2021 NCAA Tournament debut against No. 2 seed Iowa and the Ducks pulled off a big upset, downing the Hawkeyes 95-80 despite 36 points on 14-of-20 shooting from Luka Garza. Oregon turned on the jets and ran the floor with Iowa for 40 minutes. It paid off in terms of efficient offense. The Ducks shot 55.9 percent from the floor, marking the fifth time in seven games they have made at least 52 percent of their shots. Chris Duarte led the way with 23 points on 9-of-12 shooting.
No. 6 seed USC (24-7) has a good enough defense to ground the Ducks. The Trojans blasted No. 3 seed Kansas 85-51, handing the Jayhawks their third-worst defeat in school history. USC led wire to wire after shooting 57 percent from the field. The Trojans were even better from distance, going 11-for-18 (61.1 percent) from 3-point range. Isaiah Mobley made four of those outside baskets and finished with 17 points. His brother Evan Mobley added 10 points and 13 rebounds.
USC prevailed when two teams met in the regular season, beating Oregon 72-58 in Los Angeles. The Ducks trailed by 21 at halftime and never found a rhythm on offense.
West Region: No. 6 USC Trojans (24-7) vs. No. 7 Oregon Ducks (21-6)
Time: Sunday, March 28 at 9:45 p.m. ET
Where: Bankers Life Fieldhouse, (Indianapolis)
Spread: USC -2.0
Keys for Oregon
The Ducks need to dictate tempo and establish a consistent rhythm from the 3-point line early. Oregon is 15-1 this season when it makes at least eight 3-pointers and leads the Pac-12 in three-point field goal percentage (.382). When the Ducks are cooking on the perimeter, their offense is tough to contain. Oregon is the Pac-12's most efficient shooting team, making a league-best 47.6 percent from the field. Chris Duarte leads the way, connecting on 42.8 percent of his outside shots. Shooting well is critical because USC is right behind the Ducks, making 47.1 percent of its shots.
As crazy as it sounds, Oregon needs to focus on making USC earn points at the free-throw line. USC is one of the nation's worst free-throw shooting teams. The Trojans get to the line often but rarely capitalize. They make just 64.3 percent of their free throws, ranking dead last in the Pac-12. If it becomes a one- or two-possession game down the stretch, those free throw struggles will play into Oregon's favor.
Keys for USC
The Trojans have a distinct size advantage in the frontcourt and need to use it to take control around the basket. USC leads the Pac-12 in rebounding, hauling in 39.5 per game. That includes a league-best 12.0 offensive rebounds per contest. Evan Mobley, in particular, is a force inside. Mobley is averaging 8.8 rebounds and 3.0 blocks and is the Pac-12 leader in both categories. It's a big reason why he swept Player of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year, and Freshman of the Year awards in the league. If he is playing up to his abilities inside, USC will have an easier time locking things down both inside and outside.
USC needs to force Oregon into working for shots. The Ducks are excellent in scoring in transition. Four different Oregon players average at least 10 points per game. Their top three scorers shoot 45 percent or better from the field. Duarte leads the way, scoring 17.0 points per game on 53.3 percent shooting. If USC can slow it down and force Oregon to settle for low-percentage mid-range and perimeter shots late in the shot clock, the Trojans will have a huge advantage.
USC is built to counter-punch the frenzied pace that Oregon craves. The Trojans are patient in running their offense and won't let the Ducks repeatedly speed them up on offensive possessions in order to force turnovers and bad shots. Oregon struggles when it can't get shots from the perimeter to fall. USC proved in the first two rounds that it can defend the perimeter and the Trojans have a distinct advantage inside. This will add up to USC returning to the Elite Eight for the first time since 2001.
Prediction: USC 70, Oregon 65
— Written by John Coon, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Coon has more than a decade of experience covering sports for different publications and outlets, including The Associated Press, Salt Lake Tribune, ESPN, Deseret News, MaxPreps, Yahoo! Sports, and many others. Follow him on Twitter @johncoonsports.