After Gonzaga's demolition of Iowa in the round of 32, the rhetoric quickly went from "Why can't the Zags get past the first weekend" to "Wow, they might make it all the way to the Final 4". While both statements are (in the formers case, were) a bit silly and drastic, there is no doubt that Mark Few's club has become pretty darn trendy as of late. Most of it is due to the Bulldogs performance against the Hawkeyes but there are some concerns with Duke's depth and, honestly, Utah is expected to give them one heck of a challenge.
Before even speaking about Duke, there is another four-letter program the Zags must get past in UCLA. Let's take a look at the two Sweet 16 matchups in the South and what jumps out...
No. 2 Gonzaga vs. No. 11 UCLA - 4:15pm pacific, CBS
Matchup to watch: Nothing kills the Zags in the NCAA Tournament historically more than a hot three-point shooter. In Bryce Alford, UCLA has a deadly threat that can knock a team out just by getting hot. While his final shot was remarkably controversial, it was Alford 9-11 shooting from deep against SMU that led the Bruins to the win and he will need a similar performance for Gonzaga to fall victim to the upset. For that reason, it will be Gary Bell's defense vs. Alford's offense that may really decide this game. The good thing for Gonzaga is that Bell is lock-down against guys at or below his height and only really struggles with larger guards so the smaller Alford will be a good match for GBJ.
To pull the upset, UCLA must: Get a big performance out of Tony Paker. Parker has been much improved as of late but he needs to continue his play from UAB rather than perform similar to how he did against SMU. Against the Blazers, he had 28 points on 11-14 shooting bu against SMU he had only 3 points. Parker will be challenged against Przemek Karnowski so going for 28 points would be simply astonishing but if he can get Karnowski in foul trouble, the Zags could be in for another rough tournament game against UCLA.
Prediction: If Gonzaga plays anywhere near the level it did against Iowa, I have a hard time seeing how this is a close matchup. The Bulldogs will have a lot for Tony Parker to deal with in the post so the x-factor in this game may be a guy like Kevon Looney that may actually be the most talented guy on the court - especially from an NBA perspective. That said, barring an Alford explosion, I think the Zags continue their hot stretch and get a 79-71 victory.
No. 1 Duke vs. No. 5 Utah - 6:45pm pacific, CBS
Matchup to watch: All eyes for the Utes will be on star guard Delon Wright but I am very intrigued to watch the bigs matchup. In particular, Jakob Poeltl should be fun to watch against Duke super freshman Jahlil Okafor. If you are any kind of college basketball fan, you know all about Okafor but Poeltl is a fellow freshman that has shown very solid flashes. Poeltl is a 7-footer so he will have the height advantage but the key will be if he can defend well enough to avoid bad fouls and not force the Utes to double team Okafor. If he can do those two things and Utah doesn't have to sag off other to help on Okafor, we could see an upset by the Utes.
To pull the upset, Utah must: While Poeltl vs. Okafor will be fun to watch, it is hard to see Utah making a run against the Blue Devils without a huge game from Delon Wright. Wright is just a phenomenal guard and at 6'5'', he has the size to give Duke's smaller guards fits. Wright is averaging 15 points, 5 boards, and 5 assists per game this year so he knows how to put up big numbers and it will be interesting to see how the Utes choose to use him. If he can post-up, get in the lane, and draw fouls on the Duke bigs, it could expose their lack of talented depth.
Prediction: I really like Utah but the unfortunate thing is that Jahlil Okafor may have had his best game at Duke against San Diego State in the round of 32 and I simply can't get that visual out of my head. He went for 26 points on 12-16 shooting and was virtually unstoppable from the start. I do think Duke's lack of depth will eventually catch up with them (hint hint) but it won't be on Friday as they will take down the stingy Utes in a tight one, 82-78.