The Gonzaga Bulldogs and the UCLA Bruins face off for the first time since the second to last game of last season, when a Jalen Suggs’ bank shot in overtime as time expired sent the Zags to the national championship and UCLA home packing.
For college basketball, it is the biggest game of the season so far, with the No. 1 and No. 2 teams facing off for nothing more than bragging rights at the moment, and perhaps the first of two games between the two collegiate titans this season.
Meet the opponent
UCLA Bruins, 5-0, KenPom #7
If you watched the Zags/UCLA game last season, than you’ve already met the opponent. The Bruins did not lose a single major piece from last season’s squad, returning 92.7 percent of their minutes played and 91.8 percent of their scoring from last year’s Final Four team.
For UCLA, that means it all starts with the power trio of Johnny Juzang, Jules Bernard, and Jaime Jaquez. Tyger Campbell is a dogged force at the point and has shouldered a larger offensive load this season. Those four players help the Bruins average 94.8 points per game, second in the NCAA’s at the moment. David Singleton is always lurking beyond the arc and five-star recruit Peyton Watson is already making waves for his defensive presence.
Senior forward Myles Johnson, who has been starting in place of the injured Cody Riley, has been a rim protecting force, averaging two blocks per game.
The Bruins started out the season largely ranked No. 2 with an understandable question mark. They were a Final Four team, that is no accident. But they were also a play-in team last NCAA Tournament that survived two overtime games before falling in their third. Although the Bruins have only played one quality opponent so far (overtime win over Villanova), they have looked every bit the part of a team primed and readied to make a deep run this March.
What to watch out for
How does UCLA defend the post?
After watching Drew Timme singlehandedly chew up and spit out the entire Texas Longhorn defense, one has to think that Mick Cronin is working on a way to make sure the same thing doesn’t happen to the Bruins. UCLA has quality size at most positions, but that doesn’t necessarily extend into the front court. Johnson and junior Kenneth Nwuba are both 6’10. Unless Cody Riley returns from his sprained knee ligament, that is it for the height, and those players are going to have to deal with both Timme and Holmgren at the same time.
Expect Gonzaga to do exactly what they did to Texas and to UCLA last year: feed the beast. Don’t forget, Timme scored 25 points off 11-of-14 shooting in last year’s Final Four win. The UCLA defense will have to be crisp and clean on their rotations, because Timme is too good at the moment. He will make the Bruins pay down low.
How much does the experience factor matter?
This is one of those interesting, unquantifiable things in sports. In the same vein of clubhouse chemistry in baseball resulting in wins/losses, one of the biggest disparities between the Zags and UCLA is the level of experience up and down the roster. UCLA’s starting lineup consists of three seniors and two juniors. The Zags have Andrew Nembhard, Rasir Bolton, Anton Watson, Drew Timme, and a bunch of bright-eyed and bushy tailed youth. Experience is one of those things pundits always love to point to in big games. If it is back and forth in the waning minutes, that experience might start to favor UCLA.
The Zags need to be better on the defensive glass.
Because of UCLA’s size across the board, and all around tenacity and hustle, the Bruins are a sneaky good offensive rebounding team. For the Zags, they cannot be allowed to earn extra possessions. The UCLA offense is too good and efficient to allow for any additional looks.
How does the Gonzaga defense hold up?
One of the early takeaways from this young season is that the Zags’ defense looks to be completely on point. Having Chet Holmgren lurking in the post allows the Zag guards to be more aggressive defending on the perimeter. Against Texas, it looked like the Zags’ defense was completely for real, but it is also important to remember that although talented, the Longhorns are a product that will be much better in March after everyone has gelled.
That isn’t the case with UCLA. This is a surgically good team that has played with each other for quite some time, and the efficiency of their offense reflects that. No offense to Texas, but this will be the first very big defensive challenge. We know the Longhorns will be good. We know that UCLA is very good, right now.
Specifically, the big question will be how the Zags defend Jaime Jaquez. Although Johnny Juzang gets the offensive accolades, Jaquez’s versatility is what makes him so dangerous. He is dogged enough to defend and attack larger players in the post, but he is small enough to operate as a wing. Also, he has been phenomenal this year.