First Four winner Drake looks to knock off USC in the West Region
Can Drake become the latest First Four winner to make a run in the NCAA Tournament when it faces USC in the first round on Saturday?
The No. 11 seed Bulldogs (26-4) rallied from a 12-point deficit to edge fellow No. 11 seed Wichita State 53-52 on Thursday. It snapped an 11-game losing streak in the series with the Shockers and gave Drake its first NCAA Tournament victory in 50 years. Offensive struggles put the Bulldogs in an early hole, but they rallied after shooting 45.5 percent from the perimeter in the second half and holding the Shockers to 34 percent shooting from the field.
The No. 6 seed Trojans (22-7) knows what it's like to build on First Four success. USC beat No. 11 Providence in the First Four in 2017 and then went on to edge No. 6 SMU in the first round. The Trojans present significant challenges to being on the wrong end of any such upset bid. USC has a surefire NBA lottery pick in Evan Mobley anchoring the post and has plenty of sharpshooters who can make defenses pay from the perimeter. Mobley claimed Pac-12 Player of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year, and Freshman of the Year honors after averaging 16.8 points and 8.6 rebounds during the regular season.
USC and Drake met once before in the postseason. The Bulldogs beat the Trojans 80-70 in the first round of the short-lived National Commissioners Invitational Tournament in 1975.
West Region: No. 11 Drake Bulldogs (26-4) vs. No. 6 USC Trojans (22-7)
Time: Saturday, March 20 at 4:30 p.m. ET
Where: Bankers Life Fieldhouse (Indianapolis)
Spread: USC -6.0
Keys for Drake
The Bulldogs cannot afford to start slow on offense for a second straight game. Drake endured a 10-minute stretch in the first half without making a basket before finally settling down and hitting a few shots. Joseph Yesufu and Tremell Murphy eventually broke the Bulldogs out of the slump and each player ended up making three 3-pointers. Yesufu scored 21 of Drake's 52 points and Murphy finished with 11 points.
Darnell Brodie needs to be able to hold his ground in the post. USC has a definite size and length advantage against the Bulldogs and will try to pressure the rim for 40 minutes. Brodie struggled to contain Wichita State forward Morris Udeze, who went off for a career-high 22 points on 8-of-13 shooting. If Evan Mobley finds a way to post similar numbers on Saturday, the Trojans will have no trouble running away from the Bulldogs in a hurry.
Keys for USC
It's a safe bet that Drake will focus the bulk of its defensive attention on bottling up Evan Mobley. The Trojans will need to counteract the Bulldogs by establishing a consistent rhythm on the perimeter early. USC has the sharpshooters to do it. Tahj Eaddy and Drew Peterson are both capable outside scorers. Eaddy has made a team-high 58 3-pointers and shoots 39.2 percent from 3-point range. Peterson shoots 36.6 percent from long distance.
USC also needs to hit free throws to keep the game from being tighter than necessary down the stretch. The Trojans have struggled at the foul line as a team this season, connecting on just 64.7 percent of their attempts from the so-called charity stripe. Their free throw percentage ranks 318th among 340 Division I teams. Only Eaddy shoots better than 70 percent. Struggles from the line are a recipe for disaster if it becomes a one or two-possession game in the final minutes.
If Drake plays like it did in the second half against Wichita State, USC will have its hands full for 40 minutes. The Bulldogs are efficient shooters and scrappy defenders. Then again, the Trojans have a team full of deadly shooters and they are equal parts long and athletic. Drake has the ability to pull off an upset, but USC has been one of the best Pac-12 teams all season. The Trojans will find a way to pull away for a victory as the game progresses.
Prediction: USC 71, Drake 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.