One team is a powerhouse No. 2 seed trying to break a nasty streak of choking in the NCAA tournament. The other is a No. 11 seed most analysts left out of their predictions for the 68-team field. Only one team can advance to the South Regional final; only one team can truly become Elite.
The Sweet 16 round continues tonight when Gonzaga faces UCLA in Houston, Texas. Gonzaga is the trendy pick, especially since the Zags defeated the Bruins 87–74 on December 13. Junior forward Kyle Wiltjer seems unstoppable, having put up 23 and 24 points in the team’s first two games of the tournament, against North Dakota State (an 86–76 win) and Iowa (an 87–68) respectively.
The entire Bulldogs squad crushed the North Dakota State Bison with their fast-paced offense, averaging just 14 seconds per possession in the first half of their opening round game.
Domantas Sabonis scored 18 points and had nine rebounds against Iowa off the bench as well. The Zags made a name for themselves defensively too, forcing Iowa star Aaron White to just 3 of 7 shooting in the first half.
Worth noting, however, is the Bulldogs’ shaky tournament past. This is the first time they reached the Sweet 16 since 2009, when they eventually lost to North Carolina. They haven’t been to the Elite Eight since 1999, when they lost to Connecticut. Could this be the year Gonzaga finally bucks the trend and makes a Final Four run?
But don’t overlook UCLA. Led by powerful big men Kevon Looney and Tony Parker, the Bruins have dominated teams in the post and on the glass. Looney, in two tournament games, has already grabbed 21 rebounds. Against UAB in the Round of 32, Parker went off, making 11 of 14 field goals for 28 points and grabbing 12 rebounds in the Bruins’ convincing 92–75 win.
Guard Bryce Alford dominates for UCLA on the perimeter, having already racked up 49 points in two tournament games, including going 9 for 13 from beyond the arc against SMU. (As a team, the Bruins are shooting an impressive 51.7 percent from three-point range.) Alford is also a workhorse: He played 39 of 40 minutes in both games.
UCLA has some tournament history of its own. When Hall of Famer John Wooden was coach, the team won 10 titles in 12 years, from 1964–1975. Despite their impressive program résumé, most experts left the Bruins out of their tournament predictions because UCLA experienced extreme struggles on the road and was plagued by inconsistency in 2014–15.
But the Bruins, like the Zags, are fresh off of a dominating win and ready to prove the doubters wrong by taking down a No. 2 seed.
These two schools have history in the Sweet 16. In Oakland in 2006, the second-seeded Bruins were able to piece together a nine-point comeback in just over three minutes to shock the third-seeded Bulldogs 73–71 and advance to the Elite Eight. The Bruins never led in that game until the final seconds and trailed by as many as 17 in the first half and by 13 at halftime.
Two schools. One spot in the Elite Eight. This battle of storied West Coast programs is sure to be a highlight of the tournament.
Photos: Ted S. Warren/AP Photo (Gonzaga), John Locher/AP Photo (UCLA)