Gonzaga’s undefeated season will be on the line. So will a coveted Final Four berth. But there is an additional storyline to follow: How Jalen Suggs and Evan Mobley handle the biggest game of their respective lives.
The West Region final will also double as a showcase for the NBA draft.
“They are both still in contention for the No. 1 overall pick — that’s how good they are,” ESPN NBA draft and college basketball analyst Fran Fraschilla told The Post in a phone interview. “Two of the top five NBA draft picks will meet up in this Elite Eight game.”
All eyes will be on these two phenoms, the multitalented 7-foot Mobley and the advanced, explosive 6-4 Suggs, when No. 1 Gonzaga meets sixth-seeded USC on Tuesday night at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.
Suggs and Mobley play different positions, but the two share similarities. Neither elite prospect chose an established blue-blood program like so many other one-and-done recruits over the years. They passed on the new lucrative one-year option the G-League offers.
Instead, like Oklahoma State’s Cade Cunningham, they lifted their respective programs, doing what recent top NBA picks Ben Simmons, Anthony Edwards and Markelle Fultz couldn’t. They also chose wisely, selecting schools with ample talent in place.
Still, without Suggs, Gonzaga (29-0) wouldn’t be the heavy favorite to win it all it has become. Without Mobley, and his talented older brother Isaiah, USC (25-7) wouldn’t be in its first Elite Eight in two decades. Perhaps most impressive, neither player has to score big to make an impact or feel the need to satisfy his ego. Teammates and coaches describe them as selfless players unconcerned with their stat lines and focused on making the right play. They don’t hunt shots.
“That [says] they’re winners,” said Gonzaga coach Mark Few, who recruited Mobley. “They understand at the end of the day what you want all your great players to understand: If you win, the accolades will follow.”
Mobley is averaging just 12.3 points in the NCAA Tournament, but he’s producing 10.6 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 2.6 blocks, freeing up his teammates on the perimeter while eliminating drives into the paint with his 7-foot-4 wingspan. Few raved about Suggs’ defense in the Sweet 16 win over No. 5 Creighton, his ability to limit star point guard Marcus Zegarowski to four second-half points. He’s seamlessly fit in with an experienced team of established stars, accepting there are nights he won’t score big. His 13.9 points are third on the Zags, and he only attempts 10 shots per game.
“It tells you a lot about a guy who can go anywhere he wanted to in the country to play football or basketball, and he decides to come here and, in a lot of respects, probably took a backseat to what he thought he was capable of or the role he thought he deserved at a college program, and be genuinely, genuinely happy for other people’s success,” said teammate Corey Kispert. “He’s super-selfless, and he has every right not to be.”
If needed, both are of course capable of taking over a game. When Gonzaga was getting pushed by BYU in the WCC Tournament title game, Suggs exploded for eight of his 23 points in the final 4:03. He started the year by scoring 24 points in a rout of Kansas and blistered Iowa for 27 points and seven made 3-pointers. Mobley has reached double figures in all but two games and was the Pac-12’s first player to be named its player of the Year, freshman of the year and defensive player of the year.
Suggs and Mobley have reached this point of March Madness without needing to produce a huge performance. Neither team has had to sweat yet. Gonzaga has won its three tournament games by 77 points. USC has won its three by 64. That is likely to change Tuesday night. They could very well determine which team is moving onto the Final Four and which one is going home.
“If you’re an NBA draft junkie like me, you’re excited to see these two guys in one of the biggest moments of their careers,” Fraschilla said. “It’s not the be-all and end-all for NBA teams, but one of the reasons teams like to use the NCAA Tournament to evaluate is it’s the highest level of competition possible.
“It gives you a look inside a young man,” he added, “when the pressure is really on.”