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What I learned From San Diego: Arizona Wildcats and UCLA Bruins

Aaron GordonAaron Gordon put on an acrobatic display against No. 8 seed Gonzaga in the third round. (J and L photography/Getty)

The SI.com writers who covered the first weekend of the NCAA tournament offer their takeaways on each of the teams from their sites that advanced to the Sweet 16:

Other sites: Buffalo (UConn and Dayton) | Milwaukee (Michigan and Wisconsin) | Raleigh (Virginia and Tennessee) | Orlando (Florida and Louisville | San Antonio (Iowa State and Baylor) St. Louis (Kentucky and Stanford) | Spokane (Michigan State and San Diego State)

Arizona Wildcats

Seed: No. 1 seed in the West

Results: Beat No. 16 Weber St. (68-59) ; beat No. 8 Gonzaga (84-61)

The Wildcats were a bit sloppy at times in their 68-59 tourney-opening win over No. 16 seed Weber State, a flaw sophomore guard Gabe York attributed to “nerves,” especially given that three of their key players – freshmen Aaron Gordon and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and transfer point guard T.J. McConnell – were playing in their first NCAA tourney game. There was no such messing around two nights later against No. 8 seed Gonzaga, which Arizona demolished, 84-61, in a stunning display of their suffocating defense. Hollis-Jefferson said the goal against the ‘Zags was to “stomp on their neck early, and I don’t think they were ready for it.” The Wildcats forced 24 turnovers and blocked eight shots, turning those stops into 31 points off turnovers and 48 points in the paint. Mark Few, Gonzaga’s head coach of 15 years, said afterward: “The Arizona team we saw tonight was as good of a team as we have faced, that I can remember.”

Arizona (32-4) is as good a bet as any of the remaining 16 teams to take home the title. There was some fear that the Wildcats, which started 21-0 and sat No. 1 in the polls for several weeks, would nosedive after losing third-leading scorer Brandon Ashley to a broken foot in early February. Gordon conceded there was a “two-to-three game” lull while the Wildcats figured out their new lineup. They did lose three of their last six road games as well as the Pac-12 tournament final against UCLA. But Arizona’s defense, which ranks No. 1 in Ken Pomeroy’s efficiency ratings, hasn’t slipped a bit, and games like Sunday’s show how lethal they can be when their transition offense is humming. Versatile All-American Nick Johnson performs at a high level every night, but the most significant aspect of the Gonzaga game was that Gordon and Hollis-Jefferson played at such a high level. Meanwhile, York has developed into more than just a spot-up shooter, while 7-footer Kaleb Tarczewski is solid on both ends.

On Thursday in Anaheim, the Wildcats face a San Diego State team it previously beat back on Nov. 14, a 69-60 Arizona road win. The game was so long ago it will likely have very little bearing on this one, though it’s worth noting that Johnson and Co. held Aztecs star Xavier Thames to 19 points on 5-of-16 shooting. Also, the Wildcats clearly fed off the energy of a heavily partisan crowd here in San Diego and an even larger Tucson contingent is expected in Anaheim.

UCLA Bruins

Seed: No. 4 seed in the South

Results: Beat No. 13 Tulsa (76-59); beat No. 12 Stephen F. Austin (77-60)

Steve Alford’s hire from New Mexico last spring met with widespread skepticism, but in leading UCLA to a Pac-12 tournament championship and their first Sweet 16 since 2008, it’s clear he’s already rejuvenating the program. After years of half-court drudgery under Ben Howland, Alford has given the Bruins freedom to cut loose on the court, and it shows in his players’ energy. “It’s so much fun playing for him,” said big man Tony Parker. “He’s a great dude. We want to win for that guy.”

UCLA broke open a close game after halftime to dispatch No. 13 seed Tulsa, 76-59, on Friday. It led for all but the first 3:20 in a 77-60 win over Stephen F. Austin, which came in riding a 29-game win streak. The Bruins can get out and run with projected first-rounders Kyle Anderson and Jordan Adams, and much-improved junior Norman Powell has recently emerged as another transition scoring threat. Defense has not always been the Bruins’ hallmark, but they’ve stepped it up of late, delivering some of their best performances of the season during their current five-game win streak. Against Stephen F. Austin, they played primarily zone and used their length to create turnovers. “Since that Washington State game [a 73-55 road loss on March 8] we have really defended well,” said Alford. “We have had other games where we have defended well and that zone is a big part of it.”

Some might say UCLA caught a break in facing a pair of double-digit seeded mid-majors last weekend. The Bruins admittedly aren’t deep, and it remains to be seen whether they can continue their elevated defensive performances. We’ll find out soon enough. Next up UCLA faces No. 1 Florida, a premier defensive team that will try to put the clamps on the Bruins’ transition game. UCLA can pull the upset if it keeps up its recent energy, with its 75-71 win over another elite defensive team, Arizona, on March 15, serving as a possible template.

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