NCAA Tourney Preview: Gonzaga

Mar. 27 -- Two questions: Remember the last time UCLA played Gonzaga in the NCAA Tournament? And what does Kyle Wiltjer look like when he cries?

Somewhat unexpectedly, the UCLA men’s basketball team finds itself playing in the second week of the NCAA Tournament. The 11th-seeded Bruins made it to the Sweet Sixteen by upsetting 6th-seeded SMU in the Round of 64 and then routing 14-seed UAB in the Round of 32 after the Blazers shocked 3rd-seeded Iowa State. UCLA was considered fortunate by most college basketball analysts to even be in the Big Dance, but the Bruins have certainly made the most of their opportunity.

Things get exponentially harder on Friday night when the Bruins will take on 2nd-seeded Gonzaga for a spot in the South Region’s final game (4:10 PM, CBS). As you may remember, UCLA hosted Gonzaga in December during UCLA’s non-conference swoon and the Zags came away with a 13-point victory which was, quite frankly, not as close as the score indicated.

However, three months is an eternity in basketball and while both Gonzaga and UCLA have improved from where each was in December, it can be argued that UCLA is either the hottest team in South Region or the luckiest…or both.

On the other hand, while the Zags are improved and certainly one of the best teams in the country, the Bulldogs are thin on depth and have not been playing their best basketball lately.

What does “not playing their best basketball” really mean, though? The Zags are 34-2 on the season with the two losses coming by a combined 6 points. However, the losses to Arizona and BYU were similar in that normally consistent Gonzaga had a horrible collective shooting day. In fact, the key to this game may simply be how Gonzaga fares shooting the ball. The Arizona defense had a lot to do with Gonzaga shooting less than 40% in that loss from the floor, but the Zags simply had a bad day against BYU. UCLA has to hope for that kind of bad day again. While UCLA hasn’t played even decent defense most of the season, Gonzaga has the look of a team getting tired. There are only 7 players receiving minutes for the Zags and the two primary bench players, freshman Domantas Sabonis (6’10” 231 lbs.) and junior Kyle Dranginis (6’5” 202 lbs.), are the only real options that Gonzaga Head Coach Mark Few can bring into the game in relief of the starters. Gonzaga’s collective shooting percentage has been inching down as the season has worn on, despite the 60% day from the floor against Iowa last weekend, and the Zags’ free throw percentages have been dropping as well.

This isn’t a game that is going to be won or lost based on the statistics, though, but rather on match-ups. The first match-up is the coaching match-up and while we have critically analyzed Bruin head Coach Steve Alford’s tactical acumen at times, Few may not be a huge upgrade. Few is arguably among the best recruiters in the country and he certainly prepares his teams well in terms of game plans, but he has shown more than once that he goes into sort of a vapor-lock when it comes to critical in-game decisions, and he tends to show this more the bigger the game. Alford, much to his credit, coached a solid game against SMU and made one critical tactical change against UAB that virtually assured that the Blazers couldn’t offset UCLA’s talent advantage. When Alford realized early on the UAB was going to extend its defense to come out on a hot Bryce Alford, Coach Alford moved Bryce off the ball and ran him off screens. Further, when Bryce did initiate the offense, Coach Alford clearly encouraged him to drive the lane and look to dish to Tony Parker, Thomas Welsh or Kevon Looney. If Alford can make timely adjustments against Gonzaga then he’ll probably get the upper hand against Few.

The backcourt match-up is not going to be easy for the Bruins as Gonzaga seniors Kevin Pangos (6’2” 182 lbs.), Gary Bell, Jr. (6’2” 214 lbs.) and Byron Wesley (6’4” 206 lbs.) collectively torched the Bruins back in December. Bell is a good outside shooter and a good team contributor, but honestly, more was expected of him this season. Granted, it is hard to complain when a team is 34-2, but it’s almost as if Bell has become a one-dimensional shooter.

Wesley had a great game at Pauley Pavilion, but generally hasn’t been as good as his backcourt mates. He scores more than Bell but takes more shots. His Achilles’’ Heel has been his sub-30% shooting percentage from beyond the arc. He has only made 9 three-pointers on the season. Of course, he was 2 for 2 against the Bruins in December.

However, Pangos may be the key as he is the point of attack. He is also averaging almost 34 MPG because, with Josh Perkins’ (6’3” 186 lbs.) injury, Few doesn’t trust anyone else to run the point. I argued for disrupting Pangos during these teams’ first encounter and while he didn’t have a good game (3-9 from the field, 4 assists and 3 turnovers) the Zags won pretty easily. However, generally, when he doesn’t play well the team bogs down offensively.

Can Bryce Alford guard Pangos? Can Isaac Hamilton guard Wesley? Hamilton started on Wesley in December and, frankly, it didn’t go too well. So, those two questions will need to be answered at least somewhat affirmatively.

UCLA’s Norman Powell can only guard one player at a time, and even he had a down defensive game against SMU’s Nic Moore. But Powell himself has been on a different level offensively in the last month, so Gonzaga may have to worry more about who will guard him.

Gonzaga’s juniors Kyle Wiltjer (6’10” 240 lbs.) and Przemek Karnowski (7’1” 288 lbs.) along with Sabonis will present UCLA’s frontcourt with its biggest challenge outside of Arizona. Wiltjer was the best player on the floor in December at Pauley and Kevon Looney has the challenge of guarding him. To be blunt, if Looney doesn’t score a point on Friday but can hold Wiltjer to under 10, then UCLA will stand a good chance of winning. Looney has rebounded fine the past two games but his shooting stroke is way off, which is likely due to the mask he’s forced to wear due to a fractured cheek bone.

Parker and Karnowski played a relatively even statistical game in December with the Zag big scoring 10 and pulling down 4 boards and Parker scoring 5 with 9 rebounds. Parker is much more athletic than Karnowski and if UCLA can get the ball inside to him early and get Parker engaged, then Parker could have his way down low. More than that, Parker could get Karnowski and Sabonis in foul trouble and, if that happens, it could mean trouble fro the Zags. When both Karnowski and Sabonis are out of the game, Gonzaga’s frontcourt makes UAB’s look like a set of McDonald’s All-Americans.

Thomas Welsh may be another ‘X’ factor. His play has really improved of late and he probably won’t repeat his 2-point performance of the first meeting.

So, who wins the match-ups? Typically this is where I would write about what I think will happen. Not this time, at least not yet.

Here is what I believe should happen.

If there was ever a game crying out for Coach Alford to think outside the box, it would be this one. UCLA should play a triangle-and-2, with Pangos and Wiltjer the ones being shadowed. Here’s a crazier thought: Bryce and Powell should do the chasing, with Looney at the tip of the triangle and Parker and Hamilton low. Make Bell, who has become a role player, or one of the bigs win the game. Force Few to adjust, which he has struggled with in high pressure games.

What will probably happen is that UCLA mixes man and zone defenses with Powell shifting over to whichever guard is hot at the time.

Offensively, the Bruins need to play as they generally have been most of the past three weeks (excepting the Wazzu game and the 19-0 SMU run) and, if they do so, they can hang with the Zags and see who cracks first. Gonzaga is one of the most offensively efficient teams in college basketball, probably the most efficient. But its defense is nothing more than average. Opponents put so much pressure on themselves to score with Gonzaga and end up taking poor shots or missing easy ones, allowing the Zags to pull away.

The pressure, though, may be on the other foot. Few has never been to the Elite 8 as the head coach. He has seen his teams upset often enough for us to think that there may be something to that coaching vapor lock idea. Apparently, the fact that Gonzaga has yet to break through the Sweet 16 barrier has been the talk of Seattle sports radio and even on campus in Spokane. The Zags can’t escape it, and they have, at least in the past, played tighter during the Tournament than they ever have during the regular season. Few also probably can’t escape the multiple replays of his last disaster against UCLA in the NCAA Tournament in 2006.

Conversely, as Tracy Pierson likes to say, UCLA is playing with house money. The Bruins weren’t supposed to be in the Tournament, much less make a second weekend run. Further, I have yet to see a single objective prognosticator or college hoops analyst pick the Bruins to win this game. There is no pressure on UCLA. As many BRO posters have opined, the Bruins can play loose and have fun.

So…

UCLA comes out and runs its offense like it did against UAB. Tony Parker immediately establishes himself inside and while Looney can’t stop Wiltjer, he does keep him from shooting the Bruins out of the gym. Coach Alford plays Bryce off the ball and he hits a couple of early ‘3’s to get himself going. The game goes back and forth until about the 15-minute mark of the second half when UCLA puts together about 2:30 seconds of really good defense to turn a 4-point deficit into a 5-point lead. Few calls timeout. Gonzaga’s vaunted efficiency dies in the face of the pressure to get past the Sweet 16. The Zags start missing normally made shots and it affects their defensive effort. Before you know it, the Bruins are up 10 with less than 2 minutes to go in the game…

Okay, I can have as much fun as the Bruins, right?

Still, this is a match-up I looked for when the brackets were announced (after I got over my initial shock of UCLA being included in the field) if the Bruins got this far. Iowa would have brought half the state to Houston (with the other half still trying to figure out how Iowa State lost) and with Spokane 2118 miles away it is less likely that Houston will be a hostile environment for the Bruins. In fact, with UCLA being the lower seed, the Bruins may get the neutral fans to start rooting for them.

Regardless, when picking games, sometimes you just have to go with a gut feeling and this time I am. For some reason, I think UCLA wins…in fact, I think Utah upsets Duke. Either I will look clairvoyant or I will have to let you all in on what I have been drinking/smoking/taking.

UCLA 74
Gonzaga 73

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