Posted on March 23, 2023
With a trip to the Elite 8 on the line, UCLA faces a familiar opponent in 3-seed Gonzaga.
The Zags knocked the Bruins out of the Final Four in 2021 and have won four of the last five in the series dating back to 2014.
I preview the Sweet 16 game here, and my pick, along with that of Stephen Vilardo, appears at the bottom.
3-seed Gonzaga vs. 2-seed UCLA
Thursday, March 23
6:45 pm PT, CBS
But the beneficial matchups end now.
Gonzaga is a better version of Arizona that doesn’t turn the ball over nearly as much. Mick Cronin’s defense hasn’t had an answer for the up-tempo, highly efficient offenses that Mark Few and Tommy Lloyd run.
The Zags are the No. 1 team in the nation in points per game, No. 1 in field goal percentage, No. 11 in three-point percentage, and most importantly, No. 28 in turnovers per night.
KenPom rates Few’s offense as the best in the country with the nation’s 40th quickest tempo.
Four players average in double-figures and the rotation is eight-deep.
Drew Timme leads the way, a 6-foot-10 235-pound senior who is scoring 21.1 points per game on 62.1 percent shooting.
Guard Julian Strawther is the second-leading scorer, a 6-foot-7 junior putting up 15.3 ppg on 48.3 percent from the field.
The height continues with 6-foot-8 Anton Watson, a senior forward who shoots 60.8 percent with 11.3 points per game.
The primary difference that separates Gonzaga from familiar Pac-12-foe Arizona, though, is its care of the ball.
Cronin’s group has been able to beat the exact same system just twice over the last two years, both at Pauley Pavilion and each time by forcing an average of 15.0 turnovers a game.
The Zags, however, don’t make mistakes at the same rate as Arizona.
Few’s team only averages 10.6 per night and is just slightly above that mark with 11.5 per game in the NCAA Tournament.
That indicates Gonzaga will have a higher percentage of possessions leading to points while simultaneously giving UCLA fewer possessions to score.
And that’s a problem for Cronin’s system, which slows the tempo down and turns the game into a grind.
It’s not a favorable schematic matchup and it’s an opposing offensive system that he has struggled with since arriving at UCLA.
But, if there is only one factor that could tip the scales back in the Bruins’ favor, it’s rebounding. Despite the much quicker tempo, Gonzaga only averages slightly more rebounds per game.
If UCLA can win the rebounding margin, particularly by limiting the second-chance opportunities the Bulldogs have, it will be in a far stronger position to get the win.
But if the Bruins are soft on the glass and allow second bites at the apple, Gonzaga will make them pay.
Still, even with all the disfavorable schematic and analytic matchups, the X-Factor that could determine the outcome is the production of Amari Bailey.
The freshman has evolved in the postseason and elevated his game. If Bailey puts up 15 to 20 points on around 10 shots, UCLA will be tough to beat.
But if the freshman is inefficient from the field or just plain cold, the game will be Gonzaga’s to lose.
Our Senior Writers’ Game Picks
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