The Gonzaga Bulldogs and UCLA Bruins will face each other on Thursday in the Sweet 16, the fourth March Madness contest between the two west coast schools. Of the three previous ones, two games resulted in absolute heartbreak and are synonymous with the madness of March—tears for UCLA and tears for Gonzaga.
This might be a one-sided preoccupation of the opponent. After all, it is the UCLA Bruins we are talking about, arguably college basketball’s most successful team throughout history, and a squad that Mick Cronin has brought back into modern relevancy.
If you are like me, however, a fan of Gonzaga for quite some time, you can most likely remember the exact circumstances of your gameday viewing when the Zags faced the Bruins in the Sweet 16 on March 23, 2006. We don’t need to go into the details. Adam Morrison cried. Gus Johnson screamed heartbreak city. Gonzaga’s postseason collapse in that game would specifically fuel a narrative for decades that the team just cannot win when it matters.
Taking a step backward, that loss was painful for a variety of reasons. After crashing the national party in a big way to begin the Zags’ postseason streak, they hit a “slight” lull. An Elite Eight and two Sweet 16s were followed by a first round loss and a second round loss.
Then, in 2004, the Zags program went on an upward trajectory. Gonzaga peaked at No. 3 in the AP Poll and received a two-seed for their efforts. They could not make anything out of that success, falling completely flat to a thoroughly uninspiring Nevada team in the second round of the tournament, 91-72.
The following season, featuring a senior Ronny Turiaf and a sophomore Morrison, Gonzaga continued the good run. They owned non-conference wins over a No. 3 Georgia Tech, No. 3 Oklahoma State, and a No. 14 Washington team. This time, Gonzaga took a No. 3 seed into the NCAA Tournament, where they were unceremoniously dumped by No. 6 Texas Tech, who came back from a 13-point deficit, 71-69.
So in 2006, armed with another three seed and finally past the second round, it seemed like it was Gonzaga’s time. Much of that stemmed from Morrison’s bravado and his 28.1 points per game. Lost in that memory is a senior J.P. Batista averaging 19.3 points and 9.4 rebounds per country. Gonzaga owned the highest-scoring frontcourt hands down, and they abused teams with it all season.
UCLA had other plans, of course. Would it have changed Gonzaga’s current trajectory? Who knows. However, that missed opportunity stung and still does. Gonzaga would go 16 years between Elite Eight appearances, finally returning in 2015.
I can’t say what it means to be a UCLA fan. Never was, never will be. However, for a program that has been steeped in such an amazing cloak of glorious victory, much of that has come quite some time ago. Of UCLA’s 11 national championships, 10 happened nearly 50 years ago. It isn’t as if the Bruins have been irrelevant since then by any means, they won their 11th in 1995, but the modern UCLA team always operates in the massive shadow of those glory years.
Former coach Ben Howland tried his best to rectify that notion. That same 2006 UCLA team made it to the championship game, falling to the Florida Gators in the first of their back-to-back titles. Two consecutive Final Fours followed, and it looked like UCLA was back to its proper seat as the undisputed champions of the West Coast.
Since 2009, they’ve been anything since. Howland faltered and was eventually let go. The Bruins hired Steve Alford, who immediately plugged in his son, who averaged 32 minutes per game over his career while shooting 40 percent from the floor. It is not hard to understand why UCLA sort of fell into a seemingly permanent, “Oh them, sure,” level of excitement during that stretch.
The Bruins snatched Mick Cronin from Cincinnati, and the rebuild began. It was unbelievably accelerated by one moment that seems to be the trademark of college basketball: A team everyone had forgotten about for good reason that got needlessly hot at the perfect time.
In the weirdest COVID year for sports, a play-in No. 11 UCLA team defeated No. 11 Michigan State, No. 6 BYU, No. 14 Abilene Christian, No. 2 Alabama, and No. 1 Michigan, to make a Final Four that in any normal scenario they’d have no business making. But this is March Madness, and the wilder the circumstances, the better.
As we all remember, those No. 11 Bruins continued to punch well above their weight, taking every single thing a Gonzaga team that had been absolutely juggernauting its way through the season could throw at them. The fact that it all ended on a wild banked-in three heave by Jalen Suggs in overtime is the only way that Bruins’ run should have ended.
After Gonzaga’s heartbreak to UCLA in 2006, it would be over a decade until Gonzaga could get revenge. But revenge in the regular season is hardly as sweet. On Thursday, UCLA has a chance to exact revenge on a Gonzaga team with recent memory in mind. Seven players from that 2021 Bruins squad, led by Jaime Jaquez and Tyger Campbell, run the show today. The Bruins also will be without Jaylen Clark and potentially David Singleton, an extra motivation factor in the “playing your hearts out” category.
There are just as many holdovers for Gonzaga. Led by Drew Timme and Julian Strawther, alongside Dominick Harris, Anton Watson, and Ben Gregg, these Zags know what they are up against.
For UCLA, the stakes are continuing what Cronin is building and attempting to re-establish the Bruins as the penultimate program on the West Coast, the shining jewel for the Big Ten. For Gonzaga, it is the final chance for Drew Timme to continue his run of fantastic NCAA Tournament games and bring an elusive title to the Zags.
In the wildest college basketball year and definitively the wildest of NCAA Tournaments, all outcomes are possible. It is stressful, exciting, and terrifying all at the same time.