JuJu Watkins studying hard as USC’s freshman sensation prepares for NCAA Tournament debut

LOS ANGELES (AP) — JuJu Watkins and Southern California coach Lindsay Gottlieb sat down for a special kind of film session ahead of the stellar freshman’s NCAA Tournament debut.

Gottlieb had a staffer compile video of every single type of coverage used by opponents against Watkins this season. The video was long, very long.

“I just want to give her as many answers as I can before she takes the exam, so to speak,” Gottlieb said Friday. “And just understand that she has handled everything, and we’ve handled stuff, and there is nothing people can throw at us that she wouldn’t be ready for, and so it’s time to just go play.”

Behind Associated Press All-American Watkins, the Trojans (26-5) are a No. 1 seed for the first time since 1986. They’ll play 16th-seeded Texas A&M-Corpus Christi (23-8) on Saturday at Galen Center.

“It’s always been to me the most exciting time in basketball,” said Watkins, who watched the tournament growing up in Los Angeles. “It’s the best part but also the most challenging part of the season. I don’t really know what to expect.”

Watkins faced tough defenses from Pac-12 opponents like Stanford, UCLA, Oregon State, Colorado and Utah. Now, she’ll go against a TAMCC team from the little-known Southland Conference and there isn’t a lot of film. The Islanders are in the NCAA Tournament for the first time.

“That’s the surprise element of basketball,” Watkins said. “Any game you really don’t know what the other is coming with, so it’s just important for me to to go in with the right mindset, knowing that I’m going to have to make adjustments within the game and try to make them as quick as possible.”

The Trojans went 14-2 at Galen Center during the regular season, where celebrities like Will Ferrell and Jason Sudeikis dropped by to check out Watkins. She drew a strong turnout from her community of Watts, about 10 miles south of campus. She was forever accommodating the autograph and photo requests of men, women and children after games.

But now, she’s focusing inward.

“I’m just chilling,” the preternaturally calm Watkins said. “I have isolated myself a little bit from outside distractions and stuff like that. I’ve just been in my room, really.”

Watkins averaged 27 points during the regular season, second in the nation behind Iowa’s Caitlin Clark at 31.9. Her 13 games of 30-plus points topped Clark’s record of 12 for the most such games by a freshman over the last 25 seasons. Watkins’ 51 points in a win at Stanford were the most by any Division I player this season.

She is the lone freshman in USC’s starting lineup that includes junior Rayah Marshall and Ivy League graduate transfers Kaitlyn Davis (Columbia), McKenzie Forbes (Harvard) and Kayla Padilla (Pennsylvania).

“They’re just on top of everything,” Marshall said of the former Ivy Leaguers, “whether it’s reminding us to go over a ball screen or just doing the proper things to get reps done. They’re doing their jobs and their role is great.”

Also facing off Saturday at Galen Center is No. 8 Kansas (19-12) against ninth-seeded Michigan (20-13). Saturday’s winners will meet here Monday in the second round, with the winner of that game advancing to the semifinals of the Portland, Oregon, 3 region.


Away from the court, Gottlieb has her own family rooting her on, including husband Patrick Martin and their two young children.

Her son Jordan is 6 and his favorite sports are women’s basketball and the NBA. “I don’t think he totally gets men’s college basketball,” Gottlieb said.

“He can write a better scouting report than half of us in this room,” she said. “He knows players, he can mimic shot forms, he’s locked in.”

Gottlieb and her husband have explained the difference between the Pac-12 Tournament, which the Trojans won, and the NCAA Tournament to Jordan, telling him that whichever team loses now is done for the season.

“He’s like, ‘No matter what we’ll always have the Pac-12 Tournament,’” Gottlieb said. “I said, ‘True, but we got more to go for.’”

Her daughter Reese is just 18 months old, but she knows her mom’s team and the star player on it.

“The two things she says really clearly around basketball are SC, SC and JuJu,” Gottlieb said. “It’s very fun for them to be a part of it.”


AP March Madness bracket: https://apnews.com/hub/ncaa-womens-bracket/ and coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/march-madness

Copyright © 2024 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.

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