This March, the historical roles have been reversed.
The 11-time national champion UCLA Bruins are playing the role of David. They face a WCC Gonzaga team, a small Jesuit school in eastern Washington that has emerged as the Goliath of college basketball.
It’s an oxymoron calling UCLA the Cinderella story of the NCAA Tournament, but that’s where we are. The Bruins have had a remarkable March run, becoming the second First Four team to make it to the Final Four since Shaka Smart’s havoc VCU team made a run in 2011.
UCLA came into Indy losing four straight games to close the season. The team was extremely limited after losing leading scorer Chris Smith to a torn ACL. Their top rebounder/rim protector Jalen Hill had to leave for personal reasons at the beginning of February. The Bruins were down by 14 points in their First Four opener against Michigan State.
UCLA’s Jaime Jaquez described that moment.
“We came in and lost four games going into this thing,” he said. “We could have given in and packed it all up. At that point, we could have called it a season we and gave into that belief that everyone had in us. But we didn’t give in to that and stuck together, believed in one another. Cause of that, now we are here in the Final Four.”
The Bruins never gave in and came back to beat the Spartans in a classic March opening match. UCLA dominated BYU in the first round and destroyed fellow cinderella story, Abeline Christian. But that is when the run was supposed to die. Instead, UCLA upset the East Region’s top two seeds Alabama and Michigan in back-to-back games. UCLA has done so exemplifying its head coach's personality, playing with effort, toughness, grit, and coming up clutch in the biggest moments.
After the win against Michigan, Mick Cronin admitted his team loves playing the underdog role.
“Nobody picked us, nobody believed in us,” Cronin said. “On Saturday, people are still not going to believe in us. That’s how we like it.”
The Bruins are huge, 14-point underdogs against one of the best teams the sport has seen the past decade. The Gonzaga Bulldogs have run through college basketball in the same way Thanos dominated the Marvel heroes in Infinity War.
They are clearly the elite class of the sports, winning 29 out of their 30 games by double digits. There are looking to become just the eighth undefeated National Champion in history. UCLA accomplished this under legendary coach John Wooden three times. Like Thanos’ success capturing the Infinity Stones, the quest for Gonzaga’s first National Championship seems inevitable. Do the Bruins have the heroics to put a stop to it?
Disrupt Gonzaga’s ball movement
Per KenPom, Gonzaga has the most efficient offense in the history of the sport. The Mark Few ball-screen motion offence is beautiful to watch. Gonzaga can hurt you in many ways.
The Bulldogs are elite in transition, they have post presence in Drew Timme, four shooters around the court at all times, and they are elite at passing the basketball and getting clean looks. An elite rim protector is not going to be good enough to stop Gonzaga’s offense. We saw what happened with the Mobley brothers at USC.
While Gonzaga’s offense is versatile, UCLA is versatile on the defensive end. They don’t have a huge big, but Cody Riley is one of the sport's better on-ball defenders. UCLA plays four guys who can guard multiple positions. Jaime Jacquez and Jules Bernard are plus defenders on the wing. Cronin has been one of the best defensive coaches in college basketball for over a decade.
To stop Gonzaga, you have to disrupt the movement. You can’t give Timme space to work with; you have to go over screeners and get in the passing lanes. A series of days for Cronin to prepare gives UCLA a bloody shot at disrupting Gonzaga’s flow. As bad as it sounds, you have to hope they try to go one-on-one with their first-round picks. While that may not be a recipe for success either, it’s better than giving up on open lay up.
Juzang has to be the best
In every UCLA tournament game so far, Johnny Juzang has been the best player on the floor. Through five games, Juzang has averaged 21.6 points, and he is shooting nearly 50% from the field. Juzang dominating will be tough on Saturday when guys like Jalen Suggs, Joel Ayayi, Corey Kispert and Timme are on the other side.
In March, everything is possible. When UCLA’s offence stalls, Juzang is the guy who always gets them going. In the Elite Eight game against Michigan, UCLA had two field goals in the first eight minutes and trailed by eight. After Cronin called a timeout, Juzang went off, hitting six straight field goals, and the Bruins lead at halftime.
UCLA will need Juzang to engineer those types of runs. Right now, Juzang looks unguardable at times, being able to create his own shot from deep, and he has been unstoppable in the mid-range area all year.
Crunch time experience key
If the Bruins can keep this one close with five minutes to go, I like their chances of winning outright. Gonzaga has never trailed a game with five minutes to go in the second half this season. The Bulldogs have trailed under the 10-minute mark twice. The Zags have yet to face adversity all year aside from the WCC title game when BYU scared them in the first half.
Gonzaga obviously has the talent and coaching acumen to overcome a late deficit, but we haven’t seen them do it.
The one “advantage” UCLA may have over Gonzaga is their experience playing close games. The Bruins have won back-to-back games that have come down to the final minutes against superior talent.
Closing the regular season, UCLA lost four straight games to Tournament level teams in the final minutes. Those losses almost cost them a chance to make the NCAA Tournament. The Bruins have used those experiences in the regular season to prepare themselves for the stressful crunch time moments in March. UCLA players Juzang, Tyger Campbell and Jaquez have all proven to make clutch shots in this tournament. Cronin has faith in his team’s resilience during the most important parts of the game.”
“It definitely helped us in the NCAA Tournament, or we would have been gone against Michigan State,” Cronin said. “We didn’t panic when we were down, and we didn’t give in. That’s a credit to the guys on the team for the guys' refusal to give in. Alabama hit the three to send it into overtime; if there is anyone on that thought we were going to win in OT, make sure you go to church on Sunday. These guys have been unbelievably resilient. ... We have had different guys step up, and our experience in playing tough games have certainly helped us throughout this tournament.”
Maybe Lady Luck shines on the Bruins
Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good.
That is absolutely the case here. This is where UCLA needs to get help from the Zags. The Bruins won’t beat the Zags on their good day, so they will need Gonzaga's help to pull off the miracle.
In their Sweet Sixteen and Elite Eight wins, the Bruins got the benefit of off-shooting nights from Alabama and Michigan. The Crimson Tide shot a dismal 7 of 28 from 3, and Michigan was miserable as well, shooting 3 of 11 from behind the arch.
The Zags rank 38th in 3-point shooting making 38% of their treys. The Zags have only shot above their shooting average once this tournament but will need to shoot far worse for UCLA to have a chance.
That’s our closing argument for the UCLA Bruins. If UCLA pulls off the improbable on Saturday, it will live up to the greatest upsets in Final Four history, measuring against NC State over Houston, Villanova over Georgetown, and Arizona over Kentucky.
It would add to an already immortal list of accomplishments for UCLA basketball. Gonzaga is now the top dog in the sport, trying to win its first championship in its history. To win its first, Gonzaga will need to beat the most decorated program in the sport to do it.