LOS ANGELES (AP) — No one figures Evan Mobley is going to play at Southern California for more than one season. The 7-foot freshman is making his brief college career a memorable one.
His star power figures to shine when the Trojans host No. 21 UCLA in a nationally televised game matching the Pac-12′s two best teams and crosstown rivals Saturday night at Galen Center.
“It’s that game that everyone wants to play so the motivation is definitely there,” UCLA guard Jake Kyman said.
The Bruins (13-3) lead the Pac-12 with a 9-1 mark, but they’re living on the edge lately. Other than a 30-point rout of Washington State, they’ve had eight games decided by six points or less since Dec. 31. They’ve won seven.
“Our guys are locked in and they’re giving everything they have this year,” Bruins coach Mick Cronin said.
At 8-2, the second-place Trojans are off to their best start in league play since 2018, when they opened with the same record. They are 14-3 overall and have won nine of 10 since the program was shut down for nearly three weeks in December because of COVID-19 issues.
“We’re a better basketball team than we were a few weeks ago,” coach Andy Enfield said, “and I also think we could be a better team two or three weeks from now.”
UCLA is winning without stars or future first-round NBA draft picks. Chris Smith, the lone senior and leading scorer, is out for the season after tearing his ACL on Dec. 31. The Bruins have four starters averaging double figures: Johnny Juzang, a Kentucky transfer; Jaime Jaquez Jr.; Tyger Campbell, the Pac-12′s assist leader; and Cody Riley.
The Trojans counter with the Mobley brothers. Long-legged Evan, lean at 215 pounds and slinky around the basket, and his 238-pound, 6-10 older brother, Isaiah, give them an imposing frontline.
“We can’t underestimate them,” Riley said.
Evan Mobley had 23 points and 11 rebounds — his league-leading eighth double-double — to go with two blocked shots and 7 of 7 free throws in a 72-66 win at Stanford on Tuesday. He’s been the league’s freshman of the week a record-tying four times this season, which will be his last before declaring for the NBA draft.
“Evan on fumes is a pretty good player,” Enfield said. “There was no way we were going to give him a rest in the last few minutes of the game even though he probably needed it.”
Isaiah has four double-doubles of his own. He averages 8.5 points and 5.7 rebounds, and has 13 blocks to his younger brother’s 25.
“You let them catch it deep and try to double-team them, they’re pretty good at passing the ball,” Cronin said.
Both of the Mobleys can generate highlight-reel dunks, too. Evan slammed home five in a recent game.
“You let people dunk the ball, they’re going to shoot a high percentage,” Cronin said. “I’m just more concerned with their talent level, their ability to score, pass. They play team basketball. It presents a big challenge.”
The Trojans also are getting key contributions from Drew Peterson and Tahj Eaddy. Peterson, a Rice transfer, is averaging 10.2 points and 5.1 rebounds. Eaddy, a Santa Clara graduate transfer, is the second-leading scorer with 12.6 points.
The Bruins lost both games to USC last year, including a 54-52 heartbreaker on a 3-pointer by Jonah Mathews that ended UCLA’s seven-game winning streak. That game on March 7 proved to be the last for both teams, with the coronavirus pandemic forcing an early end to the season.
That defeat has stayed with Kyman longer than any other. He slipped and fell coming off a screen at the end of the game, which kept him from getting off a shot.