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USC and Oregon meet again with much more than a Pac-12 title at stake

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The details were determined long beforehand, the changes essential in an extraordinary season, but that didn’t make a lost Pac-12 title sting any less. USC had played more games. It won more conference games.

It beat Oregon at home by 14 points in the teams’ only meeting, a game the conference insisted be played on four days’ notice. And still, the Trojans lost the Pac-12 to the Ducks, whose winning percentage was marginally better.

Resentment was still simmering when NCAA tournament fate first matched the fiery conference foes together again in the Sweet 16. That was before the Trojans’ Isaiah Mobley doused the smoldering matchup Sunday in lighter fluid.

“They’ve been on a roll,” Mobley said of the Ducks after USC’s second-round win over Kansas on Monday. “I don’t want to say necessarily they’ve got luck. They’re a good team. But they stole the Pac-12 championship from us.”

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His comment only adds fuel to the fire for a matchup at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis that neither Oregon‘s nor USC’s coaches would’ve chosen themselves.

USC coach Andy Enfield, who regularly groused about scheduling inequity this season, made it clear he would have rather played an out-of-conference opponent. Even the selection committee would probably have preferred to keep the two Pac-12 teams apart, if not for extenuating circumstances. Bill Walton went so far as to call the scheduling “a disgrace.”

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But the players seem perfectly fine with the premise.

“We know a lot about them,” Trojans forward Evan Mobley, Isaiah’s brother, said. “That’s the great thing about playing them in March Madness.”

Oregon’s Eugene Omoruyi had been hoping for the rematch in the Pac-12 tournament, but both teams lost in the semifinals. “I’m just happy to get it now,” he said.

Dana Altman is hoping his Ducks (21-6) look a little different than the last time these teams met on Feb. 22, when the Trojans (24-7) fired out to a 15-0 lead and led the entire way in a 72-58 win.

“They kicked us,” Altman said. “We got off to a terrible start. They hit a bunch of threes. We got down.”

USC and Oregon players battle for the ball during the Trojans’ win at Galen Center on Feb. 22.

(John McCoy / Getty Images)

They never got back up that night at Galen Center. But the game would come at a critical juncture in the season for both teams.

Since then, Oregon has lost just one game — to Oregon State, which is also in the Sweet 16. The Ducks’ seven wins since the USC game have come by an average of 11 points. They’ve shot 44.1% (78 of 177) from three-point range in that time.

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The surge that carried USC to its first Sweet 16 since 2007 came a bit later. The Trojans lost their next two games on the road after defeating the Ducks and lost grip of the title race. That’s when Oregon took hold and refused to let go. The Ducks went 14-4 in Pac-12 play, the Trojans 15-5.

Through two rounds of the tournament, USC has looked like an entirely different team than the one that stumbled down the stretch. The Trojans have been dominant defensively, holding both Drake and Kansas to 29% shooting. The suffocating defensive performances moved USC into first in the nation in two-point percentage defense (41.4%).

The sudden emergence of Isaiah Mobley as a perimeter scoring threat has made USC’s offense all the more dangerous. The 6-foot-10 sophomore, who didn’t play in the teams’ first meeting because of a leg injury, has 32 points, 16 rebounds and six assists in the tournament. Mobley leads all USC scorers, and leavesOregon with even more difficult choices in defending him and younger brother Evan, who is a 7-footer.

No one in Oregon’s starting lineup stands over 6-6, making matching up with the Mobleys an almost impossible task.

“Both teams have improved since that game over a month ago,” Enfield said. “That’s how college basketball should be. Oregon has certainly done that. This will be a completely different game on a much bigger stage.”

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The last time Enfield was on such a big stage, the slippers came off of Florida Gulf Coast’s Cinderella run in 2013, as Enfield’s underdogs lost to Florida. Soon after, the coach was off to USC.

It took eight years for Enfield to return to the Sweet 16. But for USC, it’s been an even longer wait after its last trip in 2007 ended in heartbreak, the Trojans coming apart as top-seeded North Carolina mounted an 18-0 run late in the second half to erase a 12-point deficit.

Former USC coach Tim Floyd sealed the defeat when he picked up a technical foul in the final minute, and the Trojans haven’t been to the tournament’s second weekend since.

Fourteen years later, USC is back, with a chance to rewrite a perceived wrong in a rematch it never expected to get.

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