Gonzaga’s historic march took another significant step this week. After cruising past the Creighton Bluejays in the Sweet 16, there were plenty of pundits who thought the Bulldogs could have a test on their hands against USC. The Trojans were riding hot off a pair of impressive wins, as they decisively handled both Kansas and Oregon on their path to the Elite Eight.
None of that mattered. Gonzaga crushed USC in a game that was never in doubt. The Bulldogs have cruised to the Final Four and bring with them an undefeated, 30-0, record.
On Saturday evening, Gonzaga will play the No. 11 seed UCLA Bruins for a trip to the National Championship game. A few weeks ago on Selection Sunday, Mick Cronin’s Bruins were waiting impatiently when they were revealed as one of the last four teams to make the NCAA Tournament. Hardly anyone circled this Bruins team as one that was capable of making a Final Four run.
Entering Saturday’s contest, virtually no one thinks Gonzaga is going to lose this game. If anything, most debates will pertain to whether or not Gonzaga will be able to cover the 14-point spread. Despite what the logic says, you can guarantee that Mark Few won’t take UCLA lightly.
One thing is for sure: UCLA has earned this trip to the Final Four as their path has featured a gauntlet of opponents. The Bruins prevailed in a thrilling overtime contest against No. 2 Alabama on Sunday night, then two days later eked out another nail-biting win against the No. 1 Michigan.
Gonzaga is undoubtedly the better team on paper, but UCLA keeps finding ways to win games that they shouldn’t win. Sometimes these can be the scariest matchups. The resilient bunch from Westwood has firmly embraced the scrappy underdog role, and they certainly won’t go down without a fight. If Gonzaga wants a date with history, there are a couple of things that they have to get right in this matchup.
Don’t Let UCLA Dictate the Pace
UCLA has made it clear that it has no qualms with winning games ugly. The Bruins scored 67 points to top Abilene Christian, 65 in regulation against Alabama, and needed just 51 points to take down Michigan. The contrast between these two teams in terms of tempo is staggering.
Pending on the matchup, the Bruins are basically running a six or seven-man rotation at this point. Mick Cronin is smart enough to understand that a track meet with Gonzaga is a death sentence for his squad, so expect UCLA to try and slow down the game as much as it can.
If Gonzaga finds itself in a close, low-scoring slugfest towards the end of the first half this could put the Bulldogs in unchartered territory where it’s always difficult to predict how a team will respond. Setting the tempo early will be crucial for the Bulldogs, and if they want to do this they have to establish control of the glass.
Dominate the Boards
One reason some experts thought USC might have an outside chance against Gonzaga was because the Trojans had a superstar and a potential NBA Draft No. 1 pick big in Evan Mobley. Mobley was arguably the most dynamic player the Bulldogs have been matched up with this year. Some believed that USC could even have an advantage on the glass due to the presence of the twin-tower Mobley brothers.
That theory could not have been further from becoming true. Gonzaga absolutely dominated the glass Tuesday night, edging the Trojans 41-29. The impact Mobley had on the game was mostly mitigated, as he was held to 17 points and just five rebounds.
UCLA does not have a post presence anywhere near the caliber of Mobley. The Bruins have made this run through March by deploying smaller lineups of lengthy guards/wings. For most of the game, you should only expect UCLA to have one player on the court that is taller than 6-foot-6.
That player will most likely be junior Cody Riley if he is able to stay out of foul trouble. Riley played an integral role in UCLA’s victory over Michigan, as he was tasked with a difficult assignment in containing Michigan stud Hunter Dickinson.
Saturday will not come any easier for Riley, as he will most likely spend most of the contest matched up with Drew Timme. This is a matchup Timme should win, and UCLA will be in grave danger if Riley ends up in foul trouble.
Gonzaga has the size advantage in this game, so it will be vital that the likes of Timme and Corey Kispert control the glass. If UCLA is able to recycle possessions by snagging offensive rebounds, the Bruins can slow the game down and play at a pace that favors their personnel.
If the Bulldogs keep control of the glass, this should allow them to get out in transition and push the tempo like they do. One of the many reasons Gonzaga is so dangerous is because it possesses the ability to go on deadly runs in the blink of an eye. If Gonzaga has the advantage in the rebounding portion of this game, it will have a better chance to go on runs and build a lead.
Make someone other than Johnny Juzang beat you
Johnny Juzang is in the process of writing himself into UCLA lore. The sophomore’s performance in the Elite Eight against Michigan was nothing short of heroic, as he tallied 28 of his team’s 51 points. UCLA will most likely need another historic performance if it wants a chance to win and give the massive upset.
For Gonzaga, one of the top priorities should be containing Juzang. UCLA’s second-leading scorer against Michigan was Tyger Campell who tallied a mere 11 points. While the Bruins clearly have a collection of talented players, Juzang has firmly established himself as the standout of this group.
Juzang has emerged as the catalyst of this UCLA team while averaging 21.6 points per contest and shooting nearly 48% from the floor throughout the NCAA Tournament. One of Gonzaga’s first priorities should be limiting the impact that Juzang has and force the Bruins to find points from elsewhere.
UCLA will most likely rely on a heavy dose of 3-point shooting if it wants to keep up with Gonzaga’s gauntlet of an offensive attack. The Bruins have shot the triple at nearly a 37% clip this season, one of the more impressive marks in the country.
Cronin most likely realizes that if his team is going to win this game, they will have to go for one of their best shooting nights of the season. Gonzaga should come out ready to defend the three and force the Bruins to settle for difficult looks from behind the arc.
Will the clock strike midnight for UCLA?
If there is one thing we have all learned from watching this tournament every year, it’s that we should expect the unexpected. Gonzaga losing this game seems unfathomable, but upsets of this juncture have happened before. With that being said, it does seem like it would take the perfect formula of variables for UCLA to prevail.
Gonzaga has to avoid recycled possessions for UCLA. If the Bruins find success on the offensive glass, this opens the door for them to be able to turn the contest into a slow, low-scoring affair. As long as the Zags are able to push the tempo when needed and keep UCLA’s 3-point shooting at bay, it is difficult to find a formula that allows UCLA to win this one.