Two of the most successful programs on the west coast over the past 20 years will do battle deep in the heart of Texas as the Gonzaga Bulldogs and UCLA Bruins will square off in Houston. On the line is a spot in the Elite Eight and, for Gonzaga, it would mark the first time under Mark Few that they have advanced that deep in March. For the No. 11 UCLA Bruins, they find themselves in a very rare spot. Usually, the Bruins are the hunted but this year, they squeaked into the tournament and find themselves in a very dangerous - and fun - position as the hunter.
UCLA's path to the Sweet 16 has been a bizarre one. They defeated No. 6 seed SMU on the most controversial play of the tournament as the officials ruled a goaltending on the go ahead three point shot by UCLA and that proved to be the deciding play of the game. They then benefited from one of the largest upsets of the tournament as UAB knocked out an extremely sluggish Iowa State team to advance to play the Bruins. Behind Tony Parker, UCLA dominated the Blazers and find themselves in yet another Sweet 16.
The Zags path to Houston has been a little bit less hectic. They took down a very stingy North Dakota State team in the second round and then absolutely waxed Iowa in the round of 32 behind the hot shooting of...well, everyone but it featured Kyle Wiltjer and Kevin Pangos. The Bulldogs most recent win over Iowa was their most complete game likely in the past two months so for a program that tends to struggle to peak at the right time, this is a very promising sign.
As we covered earlier this week, these two teams did match up earlier in the year and the resulted in a pretty clear Gonzaga victory as Wiltjer starred in that one against a UCLA team that was still very much figuring one another out. Months have passed and this is a very different Bruins team mainly driven by their increased offensive efficiency. Mark Few was quoted as saying earlier that the staff has pretty much thrown that game out and is treating this UCLA team as a brand new team.
Few's approach is fair as the Bruins are considerably different in that they are just more veteran. Tony Parker is slowly coming into his own and has shown flashes of being an offensive force. Bryce Alford is hitting shots at an alarming rate as of late and Norman Powell is just a stellar guard that can do it all for UCLA.
For Gonzaga, this game is about sticking with what has got them there. While Tony Parker is blossoming, he is prone to silly fouls and the post depth for UCLA isn't ideal. Przemek Karnowski and Domantas Sabonis should be able to wear down the big man for UCLA. Kyle Wiltjer will likely draw the attention of Kevon Looney, a guy that could present Wiltjer with some issues. Look for Wiltjer to float outside a bit more and stretch the UCLA defense, much like the Zags did against Iowa. That led to a number of open looks for Sabonis and Karonwski as the Hawkeyes were caught drifting outside.
On the perimeter, the Gary Bell vs. Bryce Alford matchup will be intriguing to watch and we will also have to see how the staff defends Norman Powell. If the Bruins guards are able to penetrate, look for Few to quickly go with a lineup featuring either (or both) Kyle Dranginis and Eric McClellan.
As I said earlier, UCLA is playing with house money. No one thought they would it this far - heck, no one thought they should be in the tournament. They'll be playing lose and with the intent to ruin Gonzaga's dream season. If the Zags come out tight, UCLA has the talent to make this very uncomfortable so they key in my eyes is Few keeping this team relaxed and not letting one mistake snowball into several others. In the end, I think Gonzaga's simply too talented for UCLA to stop and they emerge with a comfortable win.