Ahead of Saturday’s men’s Final Four, we'll be previewing each of No. 1 Gonzaga, No. 1 Baylor, No. 2 Houston and No. 11 UCLA this week. Houston and Baylor are done; next up is UCLA, the surprise of the Final Four after an improbable run to the final weekend. Here's everything you need to know about the Pac-12 team coached by Mick Cronin.
How It Got Here
The Bruins are the second team ever to go from the First Four to the Final Four, winning five games in a row after losing four straight to close the regular season. UCLA’s run was nearly over before it even began—the Bruins trailed by 11 at halftime and by five with under 90 seconds to go against Michigan State in the First Four. Mick Cronin’s club rallied, forced overtime and was off to the races from there.
UCLA then controlled the game for much of the way against BYU and handled Abilene Christian with relative ease before taking on the No. 2 and No. 1 seeds in the East. A buzzer-beating three by Alex Reese sent the Bruins to overtime for the second time in the tournament against Alabama, but UCLA maintained its poise and dominated the extra period. It then found a way to win a grinder of a game against Michigan, holding the Wolverines to a season-low 49 points and using 28 points from Johnny Juzang.
One Big Thing We’ve Learned
UCLA is resilient. Winning two games in overtime and a third by two points takes a little bit of luck but a lot of heart. The Bruins have fought back from big deficits (Michigan State) and battled and held on after losing a lead (Alabama). They’ve won games in the 80s and the 50s. They’ve won when Juzang shot 5 for 18, like he did against Alabama. UCLA has been far from perfect in this tournament, but it’s done enough to have a chance to win late and made big plays when it has mattered. And sometimes that’s all it takes to make a deep run in this unpredictable setting.
The best-case for UCLA against Gonzaga is simply being in the game with a chance to win in the closing minutes. How can the Bruins get to that point? They’ll need the trio of Juzang, Jaime Jaquez Jr. and Tyger Campbell to play near-perfect basketball. The three-point shot can be a great equalizer in a game like this, and Juzang, Jaquez, Jules Bernard and David Singleton have all had bright moments from deep in this tournament. Meanwhile UCLA somehow controls the tempo, forces Gonzaga to execute in the half court, and doesn’t give up the backbreaking 10–0 run. If the Bruins do all those things, they have a chance. Of course, all that is easier said than done.
Unlike against Michigan and Alabama, the Bruins can’t keep the score down against an offense as historically good as Gonzaga’s. Drew Timme eats on the interior against Cody Riley, Corey Kispert bounces back from a cold shooting night against USC and the Bruins get blown away by the undefeated Zags. It wouldn’t exactly be a surprise: Gonzaga has done it to everyone else it’s played in this tournament. If the threes aren’t falling for the Bruins, it will be hard for UCLA to hang around in this one.
X-Factor: Cody Riley
Riley is a talented but frustrating player up front for the Bruins. He’s really UCLA’s only capable center to play against someone like Timme—freshman Mac Etienne isn’t physical enough, Kenneth Nwuba doesn’t move well enough and Jaylen Clark isn’t big enough. Riley did an admirable job defending Hunter Dickinson when not on the bench with foul trouble, and he came on strong late against Alabama with a few late buckets. Slowing down Gonzaga starts with slowing down Timme, and the Bruins need 25 minutes or more of the “good” Riley if they are going to have a real shot in this one.
One Shining-Moment Candidate: Johnny Juzang
Juzang has been one of the best players in this tournament. Battling through repeated ankle injuries, he has still made big shot after big shot for the Bruins throughout this miracle run, including scoring over half of the team’s points against Michigan. If the Bruins are going to pull off the unthinkable against Gonzaga, they’ll need a heroic performance from Juzang.
It’s tough to bet against this team with the way it’s battled throughout the tournament, but UCLA’s run will come to an end against Gonzaga. The Bruins won’t be able to slow down Timme on the inside, and that will open up things for the Bulldogs guards on the perimeter. And while Juzang will bring it despite his injured ankle, it won’t be enough to beat the undefeated Zags. Regardless of what happens against Gonzaga, this run sets the tone for lots of future success under Cronin in Westwood.
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