8:34 PM EST, CBS – Line: Gonzaga -14, Over/Under: 145
A chaotic season followed by an even more chaotic tournament is set to conclude this weekend as the upstart eleventh-seeded UCLA Bruins battle the top overall seed in the dance, Gonzaga Bulldogs, in the latter National Semifinal from Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, Indiana. Though the prestige of their program certainly trumps the remaining quartet of schools that comprise this Final Four, UCLA (22-9, 13-6 in Pac-12) is also by far and away the biggest surprise to have reached this point, becoming just the fifth Eleven Seed to advance to a National Semifinal and the third since the NCAA expanded the Tournament to four play-in games. Needless to say, there weren’t very many (apart from a number of Bruin alumni) that predicted that the Bruins would still be competing at this juncture, but credit must go towards (Head Coach) Mick Cronin, who in just his second season in Westwood has the program well ahead of schedule. Very much a surprise hire, the 49-year old is proving to be an inspired choice by all accounts; Cronin got his start under (Hall of Famer) Rick Pitino at Louisville before eventually accepting the call from Murray State, where in three seasons he led them to an Ohio Valley Conference Championship, a pair of OVC Tournament Titles, and two NCAA Tournament appearances, before heading to his Alama Mater, Cincinnati, where he would spend the next thirteen years compiling nine consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances and a pair of American Athletic Conference Championships. His first season in Los Angeles was underwhelming as his charges finished with a 19-12 record before the Pac-12 Tournament (and college basketball altogether) came to a grinding halt due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Of course, this season hasn’t been without it’s struggles, for UCLA experienced two lengthy pauses in the schedule; they would play just once in a period of twenty days back in December, while seeing a pair of games canceled or postponed in late-January/early February. They also lost a pair of big guns early on, with reigning Pac-12 Most Improved Player of the Year, Chris Smith (12.6 PTS, 43.8% FG, 50.0% 3FG, 6.4 REB, 2.0 AST, 0.9 STL, 20.6 PER), tearing his ACL after just eight games, while (Junior Forward) Jalen Hill (6.1 PTS, 55.6% FG, 5.5 REB, 1.1 AST, 1.0 BLK, 22.8 PER), left the program due to personal reasons in early February. Furthermore, they were also far from in form heading into this postseason, losing four consecutive contests, including their lone outing the Pac-12 Tournament, making them a surprise choice by the committee to compete in the big dance. (Sophomore Guard) Johnny Juzang (15.5 PTS, 42.9% FG, 34.7% 3FG, 4.0 REB, 1.6 AST, 0.7 STL, 19.2 PER) was Cronin’s most significant recruit in the offseason, transferring from Kentucky following one year in Lexington, and has been arguably the Player of the Tournament thus far, with the Los Angeles native averaging 21.6 points per game on 47.7% shooting from the field, including 35.3% from downtown, along with 3.6 rebounds. He scored twenty-three points in their Play-In victory over (11) Michigan State (86-80), followed by twenty-seven versus (6) BYU (73-62) in the First Round, though was relegated to the Bench after fouling out in the game of the tournament, an 88-78 triumph over (2) Alabama in the Elite Eight that required overtime to decide a victor. Juzang (13 PTS) fouled out after thirty minutes of action, but his teammates carried on without him, outscoring the Crimson Tide 23-13 in a decisive extra period; five other players reached double-figures in scoring, with (Sophomore Guard) Jaime Jaquez (12.1 PTS, 48.6% FG, 39.3% 3FG, 6.1 REB, 1.6 AST, 1.2 STL, 19.2 PER) and (Junior Guard) Jules Bernard (10.5 PTS, 43.8% FG, 39.4% 3FG, 5.2 REB, 1.6 AST, 0.5 STL, 16.2 PER) totaling seventeen points apiece, with the former filling up the stat sheet with eight rebounds, three assists, three steals, and a block. (Sophomore Guard) Tyger Campbell (10.2 PTS, 42.5% FG, 24.6% 3FG, 2.1 REB, 5.3 AST, 1.1 STL, 14.8 PER) added another thirteen points, a team-high five assists and a pair of steals, while (Junior Guard) David Singleton (4.8 PTS, 44.6% FG, 47.0% 3FG, 1.6 REB, 0.6 AST, 13.2 PER) chipped in with fifteen crucial points off the bench, knocking down 3-of-4 attempts from beyond the arc (75.0%). Though they only shot a mere 39.% from the field, UCLA earned this victory by taking excellent care of the basketball (7 turnovers), and controlling the tempo by getting to the charity stripe, calmly netting 20-of-25 free-throws, which parlayed to a Plus-9 advantage in that regard. It was quite the dogged performance from a team that was seriously underestimated coming into March, a notion that would only be reinforced against their next opponent…
”These guys get all the credit… Unbelievable heart, toughness. Nobody picked us. Nobody believed in us. That’s how we like it. We know our next assignment is tough,” Cronin said, ”but their resiliency is unbelievable.”Mick Cronin following (11) UCLA’s stunning 51-49 upset of (1) Michigan to reach the school’s nineteenth Final Four, though his first in eighteen years as a Head Coach.
When we last saw UCLA, they managed to advance to their nineteenth Final Four in school history and their first since 2008 after pulling yet another upset in the form of a narrow 51-49 affair against the Michigan Wolverines, the East Region’s top seed. Points were indeed difficult to come by in a slugfest in which both teams shot below 40.0% from the field, while neither managed to get to the charity stripe combining for only eighteen free-throw attempts. The difference in the contest though was turnovers, which proved to be costly for the typically efficient Wolverines, who continued to press on without (Senior Forward) Isaiah Livers, who suffered a stress reaction in his right foot during his side’s trek through the BIG 10 Tournament. In the end, UCLA committed just eight turnovers in comparison to fourteen for their opponent, matching their highest total since the middle of January. Their second-leading scorer (13.1) and most dangerous three-point shooter (43.1%), Livers’ absence was bound to effect Michigan’s tournament run at some point, and it just so happened that it would be in this particular matchup with the Bruins. (Head Coach) Juwan Howard’s charges had multiple looks from the perimeter on their final two possessions of the night to fell the representatives from the Pac-12, but simply couldn’t connect when it mattered most, with both Franz Wagner’s and Hunter Dickinson’s attempts from three failing to hit the mark. While one team was clearly lacking without one of their stars, the underdog Bruins rode theirs, with the aforementioned Juzang turning in his most inspiring performance of the tournament thus far; the Sophomore dropped a game-high twenty-eight points on 11-of-19 shooting (57.9%), including 2-of-5 from beyond the arc (40.0%). His only teammate to reach double-figures was Campbell, who finished with eleven points, though that’s not to say that the rest of the rotation didn’t find ways to contribute. Both Bernard and Jaquez only managed four points apiece, but were extremely active on the glass, combining for fifteen rebounds, including five of the offensive variety, along with six assists, while the latter was a bonafide menace defensively with three steals and a block. They’ll need to continue be active on the defensive end after holding each of their last three opponents below 44.0% shooting, while forcing twenty-eight turnovers over the past two outings. However, they’ll also have to take care of the basketball as well, and we can imagine that Cronin will be drilling that into his troops’ heads coming into this weekend’s matchup; UCLA has committed no more than eight turnovers in any of their tournament affairs, with the Bulldogs forcing seven early turnovers in their romp over another Los Angeles side, USC, en route to building a massive lead last Tuesday night.
Meanwhile, as their opponent looks to add another chapter to their storied legacy, Gonzaga (30-0, 15-0 in West Coast Conference) is looking to make some serious history of their own, as they are just two victories away from becoming the first side since 1976 to finish their run as an undefeated National Champion. Forty-six years ago, the Indiana Hoosiers were the last team to achieve that feat, though there have been a number of schools who have reached this point of the tournament with an unblemished record; back in 1991, UNLV looked to repeat as National Champs though saw their perfect 34-0 start come to an end in the Final Four, while Kentucky finally fell in the 2015 Final Four after thirty-eight consecutive wins. Entering this season as No. One Overall in the Polls, the Bulldogs never relinquished their standing among the voters, despite playing one of the toughest non-conference schedules in the country, easily felling the likes of Kansas (102-90), Auburn (90-67), West Virginia (87-82), Iowa (99-88), and reigning National Champion, Virginia (98-75), by an average margin of 14.8 points per game before waltzing through their conference schedule to a ninth consecutive WCC Championship and second straight conference tournament title. It’s really remarkable what (Head Coach) Mark Few has managed to accomplish in his lengthy tenure in Spokane, Washington; the 58-year old has gone a ridiculous 629-124 (.835) in twenty-two years with the program, taking them to the NCAA Tournament in every season during his reign in the Pacific Northwest with the exception of last season due to COVID-19, with six Sweet Sixteens in the last seven years, including four Elite Eights, and a pair of Final Fours, along with one appearance in the National Championship Game four years ago when they came up just short in a tightly-contested affair with North Carolina. Indeed, the only thing missing on his resume’ is a National Title, which would be the first in school history. As for his chances of doing so, well you’d have to like them given the talent on hand for you can make a very strong argument that this is easily the most talented team that he’s had in his two-plus decades with the program. Both the highest-scoring team in the country (91.6 PTS) and it’s most efficient offensive outfit (54.9% FG), the Zags have remarkably been in only ONE game all season decided by single-digits, with their average margin of victory thus far in the tournament standing at a ridiculous 14.8 points. (Forwards) Drew Timme (19.0 PTS, 65.0% FG, 30.0% 3FG, 7.2 REB, 2.3 AST, 0.7 STL, 0.7 BLK, 33.1 PER) and Corey Kispert (18.9 PTS, 53.5% FG, 45.3% 3FG, 5.0 REB, 1.7 AST, 0.9 STL, 26.2 PER) have been nothing short of sensational, combining for 37.9 points per game with both players shooting well over 50.0% from the field, while (Freshman Point Guard) Jalen Suggs (14.0 PTS, 50.2% FG, 33.0% 3FG, 5.5 REB, 4.5 AST, 1.9 STL, 22.6 PER) is the highest-profile recruit that the Zags have ever landed. Each have had their moments throughout this tournament run, with Timme looking like the aforementioned Juzang’s biggest competition for Player of the Tournament honors, averaging 21.3 points on 61.5% shooting, with 7.5 rebounds and 4.5 assists over the last four games. The 6’10” Sophomore scored a career-high thirty points against Oklahoma in the Second Round along with thirteen rebounds, while calmly knocking down 12-of-14 free-throws. It’s fitting that in order to finish with a perfect record that they would have to run through UCLA, who at one point during their insane run under John Wooden (TEN National Championships in TWELVE years!!!) went undefeated in back-to-back campaigns, though by all metrics this group checks all the boxes for a team of the ages. Let’s see if they can seal the deal though…
”We just tried to stay moving… We didn’t let the ball get too sticky. We kept moving, flashing into the high post. It was a lot for them to deal with – good cuts off the baseline, vertical cuts off the wings.”Jalen Suggs on (1) Gonzaga’s offensive explosion against (6) USC’s previously-staunch defense, outscoring the Trojans 49-30 in the First Half en route to advancing to their second Final Four in five years and running their undefeated record to 30-0.
When we last saw Gonzaga, they made quick work of yet another opponent, this time taking (6) USC to the proverbial woodshed in an 85-66 thumping in the West Regional Final last Tuesday night. Though there have been many notable performances this season, this one may have been their most impressive thus far, simply for the fact that the Trojans entered this Elite Eight meeting on a legitimate tear, beating their previous three opponents in the tournament by a staggering 21.4 points while relegating them to a scant 32.2% shooting from the field. Well, it became apparent very quickly that the Bulldogs were NOT impressed as they came out firing in the First Half, outscoring the representatives from the Pac-12 49-30 through the first twenty minutes of action, a margin built upon a Plus-7 turnover differential through the first twelve minutes alone. While Southern Cal shot just 38.7% overall, including a miserable 4-of-15 from beyond the arc (26.7%), the Zags continued to hum on the offensive end of the hardwood, netting a blistering 50.0% from the floor, with the majority of their damage coming within the arc, shooting 26-of-45 on two-point field goals (57.8%), many of which came in the paint. They led 25-6 just past the midway point of this contest, and would never lead by less than sixteen points the rest of the way. In a matchup with Pac-12 Freshman of the Year, Evan Mobley, Timme rose to the occasion once more, leading his team with twenty-three points on 10-of-19 shooting (52.6%), with five rebounds, four assists, and three steals. Kispert and Suggs added eighteen points apiece, with the triumvirate nearly outscoring their opponent by themselves. It may have been an off-day for Kispert from the perimeter (3-of-10 3FG), but he made up for it with eight rebounds and a pair of assists, while Suggs was all over the glass with a team-best ten rebounds and eight helpers. (Fifth-year Senior Guard) Aaron Cook (4.5 PTS, 50.0% FG, 35.9% 3FG, 1.6 REB, 1.6 AST, 0.9 STL, 15.6 PER) chipped in with eight points off the bench, with the Southern Illinois transfer hitting both of attempts from downtown. Furthermore, Few’s troops assisted on a wild twenty-one of their thirty-three field goals, highlighting their excellent ball-movement in contrast to the scant nine dimes of their opponent, which spoke to their disruptive play on the defensive end. They’ll be looking to count on their efficiency propelling them past the Bruins, who have been nothing short of disruptive through their respective tourney run, though this should be a matchup where Gonzaga’s size, particularly Timme, should give them a major advantage. UCLA is far from the biggest team in the tournament field, though they do manage to play larger than their measurables, so keep an eye on how both sides perform in the painted area of the court.