Gonzaga’s previous win over UCLA doesn’t mean much for Sweet 16 tilt

Mar 24, 2015, 4:57 PM | Updated: Apr 7, 2015, 4:03 pm
Kevin Pangos and the Zags already own an 87-74 victory over UCLA, their Sweet 16 opponent on Friday...
Kevin Pangos and the Zags already own an 87-74 victory over UCLA, their Sweet 16 opponent on Friday. (AP)

Friday’s Sweet 16 matchup won’t be the first time this season that Gonzaga and UCLA have met on the hardwood. But just because the Zags own a win over the Bruins doesn’t necessarily mean you can already start penciling them into the Elite Eight.

This is March, after all, where much crazier things have happened than an 11 seed knocking off a No. 2. And madness aside, this is a different UCLA team than the one that fell 87-74 at home to the then ninth-ranked Bulldogs.

The Bruins came into the season largely inexperienced, with no seniors and only three juniors on their roster. But by virtue of playing Oklahoma, North Carolina and Gonzaga in the preseason, then working their way through the always rough Pac-12 slate, they had to grow up, and grow up fast.

Despite that stacked schedule, they snuck their way into the tournament (albeit with some debate), and they’ve proven they belong by upsetting No. 6 seed SMU in the round of 64 and dispatching No. 14 seed UAB in the round of 32. Suffice to say UCLA is much more seasoned than in its first meeting with Gonzaga, which was only game 12 of the year.

On the court, the Bruins enter the Sweet 16 with a red-hot starting point guard in Bryce Alford, the son of head coach Steve Alford. He was the story of the win over SMU – not just because his late 3-point attempt resulted in a controversial game-winning goaltending call, but also because he finished 9 for 11 from 3-point land for a game-high 27 points. A downtown threat like that will be of great concern for the Zags, who had trouble defending the 3 in their 86-76 victory over North Dakota State last Thursday as the Bison knocked down 10 of 21 shots from beyond the arc.

The Bruins shouldn’t have to rely just on Alford’s shooting, either. Even though Gonzaga boasts one of the best frontcourts in the nation, which had its way with UCLA the first time around by winning the rebounding battle 34-30 and holding 6-foot-9, 260-pound forward Tony Parker to just five points, don’t count on the battle in the paint being that easy a second time. Parker is coming off a monster 28-point, 12-rebound effort vs. UAB, and the Bruins dominated the glass in that game 41-26.

On the flip side, none of that will matter if Gonzaga continues to shoot like it did in its round of 32 win over Iowa. Led by forward Kyle Wiltjer (24 points) and guard Kevin Pangos (16 points), who hit four 3s each, the Zags never gave the Hawkeyes much of a chance by shooting 61.5 percent (32 for 52) from the floor and 62.5 percent (10 for 16) on treys. UCLA is unlikely to keep up, either, if they end up in shootout with the Bulldogs.

Should Gonzaga’s shooting level off and UCLA continues to ride the hot hand of Alford and the keep the rebounding battle respectable, look to depth to settle it. And that’s where the Zags hold the trump card. Sixth man Domantas Sabonis (9.7 points, 7.1 rebounds per game) has been splitting time nearly even with fellow 7-footer Prezmek Karnowski throughout the season and has numbers deserving of a starting spot, and Kyle Dranginis and Eric McClellan are both accustomed to logging significant time in relief of the starting guards. Meanwhile the Bruins only have a pair of freshmen playing much off the bench – center Thomas Welch (3.9 points per game) and Gyorgy Golloman (1.4 points per game).

If the Bruins do indeed pull off the upset, they will quickly find themselves regarded as one of Gonzaga’s most maligned opponents. After all, UCLA already derailed another promising Zags run, coming from behind to knock off Adam Morrison and company 73-71 in the 2006 Sweet 16, perhaps the most painful loss in the Gonzaga program’s history.

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Gonzaga’s previous win over UCLA doesn’t mean much for Sweet 16 tilt