For the third year in a row, the Gonzaga Bulldogs and UCLA Bruins will face off. No one will ever forget the Final Four tilt between these two squads in 2021 that ended in Jalen Suggs’ iconic March Madness moment. They had a rematch with lower stakes last year in Las Vegas, which will be the site of their Sweet 16 tilt 17 years to the day of that other Sweet 16 game between them...no need to relive that one unless you’re a masochist.
Meet the opponent
UCLA Bruins (31-5, 18-2 Pac 12; NET #3, KenPom #3)
Because of the recent history there should be no surprises between these two teams when the ball is tipped off on Thursday night. There will be lots of familiar faces and we know what type of game is in store against a Mick Cronin-coached team. It’s going to be an ugly grind. The Bruins do just about everything well defensively, and on offense are paced by the senior duo of Tyger Campbell and Jaime Jaquez (who both started in the Final Four game two years ago). Freshman guard Amari Bailey is a dangerous threat as well.
The Bruins are not at full strength however, as they lost junior guard and Naismith National Defensive Player of the Year Finalist Jaylen Clark to a season-ending injury on Senior Night. Freshman center Adem Bona is playing in a Zorro mask and with a bum shoulder, while senior forward David Singleton rolled his ankle in the final seconds of the second round win over Northwestern though I expect him to play on Thursday.
Here’s David Singleton and based on this he wasn’t kidding after the Northwestern game when he said “I’m fine.” pic.twitter.com/Pdd8ZE5EEn— Ben Bolch (@latbbolch) March 21, 2023
What to watch for
The turnover battle: UCLA is one of the best teams in the country at forcing turnovers, doing so on 23.4% of defensive possessions which is good for 11th in the country and are also one of the best at taking care of the ball. The Zags cleaned up their early-season turnover issues and are now one of the best teams in the country at taking care of the ball (14.7% turnover rate, 12th best). Something has to give between these two strengths. Without Jaylen Clark in the lineup and with a wounded Bona, the Bruins could be vulnerable in that department. It will be up to Gonzaga to take advantage though Cronin will assuredly have the Bruins ready to defend.
Gonzaga’s backcourt: Drew Timme scored 25 points against UCLA in the Final Four, followed by 18 points during the blowout win in Vegas last season. He’s going to rise to the occasion and get his. To avoid ceding control of the game and an early hole, however, the Gonzaga backcourt needs to get off to a much better start than we saw on Sunday evening against TCU. The second half performance needs to be present from the outset, and they need to lock up Tyger Campbell early. This feels like a good opportunity for Malachi Smith and Hunter Sallis to be the difference makers off the bench.
Three-point line: The Bruins don’t take a lot of 3s, and they’re pretty mediocre at converting those attempts. As we saw in the first half against TCU (also a bad 3-point shooting team), that probably means the Bruins are going to light it up from long distance. Consistent with their defensive ethos, the Bruins do a nice job of defending the three-point line so the Zags will have to hope they don’t get off to the same slow start that they did in the second round of the tournament.