Indianapolis — USC’s Mobley brothers, Evan and Isaiah, did to third-seeded Kansas on Monday night what Eastern Washington’s Groves brothers, Tanner and Jacob, could not just two days earlier.
They sent the Jayhawks home with a gut-wrenching 85-51 loss in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
After the teams briefly shook hands and KU walked off the floor, Kansas senior Marcus Garrett led the Jayhawks to the locker room, draping a towel over his head and covering his face to hide the pain.
“That’s about as poor as we can play and I’m sure (USC coach) Andy (Enfield) would say that’s certainly one of their better games,” KU coach Bill Self said after the loss. “So it was a bad combination all the way around for us."
Although the statistics were similar in that both pairs of siblings went off against the Jayhawks (the Groves Bros. for 58 points, including nine 3-pointers, and the Mobleys for 27 points and 21 rebounds), it was the way it happened on Monday night at historic Hinkle Fieldhouse that made the Mobley impact much tougher for Kansas to overcome.
As if Isaiah Mobley’s four first-half 3-pointers — a new career-high, by the way — were not enough, the fact that both brothers kept Kansas from getting comfortable on offense added to the misery for the Jayhawks.
"He was four of five (and had) made 12 for the year," Self said of Isaiah Mobley, who strummed an imaginary guitar while getting back on defense after every 3-point make. "That kind of staggered us and put us in a situation where we really didn't recover."
The loss was KU's worst ever in an NCAA Tournament game and the worst in any game during Self's 18 years with the program.
Kansas opened the game 1-of-11 from the floor and heated up only marginally the rest of the half, first climbing to 4-of-20 before settling at 8-for-31 (27%) by halftime.
USC wasn’t much better to start the game, but the Trojans (24-7) looked much more comfortable and were able to dictate the way the game was played on both ends.
The Groves brothers did that on the offensive end, but Kansas was eventually able to outscore them.
USC’s air-tight defense, led by the Mobley brothers, made that much more challenging for KU in the second round.
“They’re totally different type players,” Self said of USC’s Kansas killers.
By halftime, the 6-foot-10 Isaiah Mobley and 7-foot Evan Mobley had combined for 21 points, 16 rebounds and 2 blocks, matching KU’s point total and out-rebounding the Jayhawks by themselves, 16-15.
When the final buzzer sounded, the two had added nine assists to their 20-plus combined points and rebounds and earned a comfy seat on the USC bench while the Kansas walk-ons and reserves played out the game on the wrong end of a blowout.
Despite the miserable offensive start, Kansas found something that worked midway through the half, with Marcus Garrett and Christian Braun driving hard for baskets at the rim.
Many of them came when David McCormack pulled Evan Mobley out of the paint. But USC’s willingness to attack KU’s offense with a 2-3 zone defense kept that strategy from working for long.
Still, Garrett’s driving bucket with just over 4 minutes to play in the half pulled Kansas within 29-21, and the Jayhawks appeared to be right there. USC responded with an 11-0 run to close the half and led 40-21 at the break.
Kansas (21-9) showed signs of life early in the second half, cutting the USC lead to 16, with a shot in the air that could have cut it to 13. But the Jayhawks just never could string together multiple positive plays in a row.
“They were obviously more prepared, played better, coached better, we shot it miserably and they shot it unbelievably well,” Self said. “You’ve got to make some shots.”
Even when USC tried to help them by launching quick 3-point shots instead of milking the clock — it’s hard to blame them for doing so, as the Trojans hit 11 of their first 16 3-point tries in this one — the Jayhawks were called for a foul on the box out or lost the rebound out of bounds.
After each moment, the Kansas player hit by the miscue grimaced in the kind of pain that could be felt in all four corners of Hinkle Fieldhouse.
The looks on the faces of the Jayhawks said it all throughout Monday’s game. And that’s to say nothing of the shade of red on Self’s face on the bench, rosy because of both his team’s offensive ineptitude and some of the whistles that went against his team.
In the first half, redshirt freshman Jalen Wilson responded to an air-balled jumper from the high post with a head shake and a frown toward the ground.
Later, after McCormack lost a defensive rebound out of bounds during a stretch when KU had an opportunity to steal some momentum, Garrett clinched his fists and flinched his face with the agony of the lost opportunity filling his face.
The expressions of pain soon turned to shame, as USC stayed red hot and relentless until the final buzzer, burying 3-pointer after 3-pointer and throwing down several vicious and uncontested dunks that left the basket shaking and the Jayhawks defeated.
Before the final margin was set, USC built a lead of as many as 35 points (79-44) in a game that was every bit as lopsided as that score indicated.
“I hate it for all our guys,” Self said. “But more so for Marcus than anybody else. I’m disappointed for Marc. I thought he competed and tried his butt off.”
Box score: USC 85, KU 51 ( .PDF )
Monday’s loss ended one of the strangest seasons in Kansas basketball history.
Playing in front of mostly-empty arenas throughout the season, and with the threat of COVID-19 looming with every thrice-weekly test, the Jayhawks still managed to finish second in the Big 12 Conference and entered the postseason as the 12th-highest seeded team in the country.
As he has said throughout his time as a head coach, Self said before the NCAA Tournament began that the matchups are more important than a team’s seed. And Kansas, which actually was a 1.5-point underdog entering Monday’s game against the sixth-seeded Trojans, ran into a matchup for which they had no answer.
Monday’s victory, the latest by the surprising Pac-12 Conference, which put four teams into the Sweet 16 and stole the headlines this week, moves USC into the next weekend’s third round, where they’ll meet up with conference foe Oregon on Sunday.
Kansas, meanwhile, will head home licking its wounds and wondering what the future holds.
While the COVID-19 waiver presents the opportunity for everyone on the roster to return, at least a couple of players — most notably Garrett — likely will consider leaving.
And then there’s the looming NCAA infractions case against the program, which remains in the hands of the newly formed Independent Accountability Resolution Process panel that could determine KU’s postseason fate for future years if the punishment doled out is severe.
Self has said in recent weeks that he hopes for a resolution in the NCAA’s case against Kansas by the end of summer or early fall.
“I think for a lot of teams out there, it’s been a hard year,” Self said. “I really thought we were peaking at the right time, but our margin for error was small and when we played in a way where the ball stuck and we didn’t really play together to help each other, we became very average or even poor.”