Before Men’s Final Four on Saturday, we will preview each of No. 1 Gonzaga, No. 1 Baylor, No. 2 Houston and No. 11 UCLA this week. Houston and Baylor they’re done; next is UCLA, the Final Four upset after an unlikely run to last weekend. Here’s everything you need to know about the Pac-12 team led by Mick Cronin.
How it got here
The Bruins are the second team to go from the First Four to the Final Four, winning five games in a row after losing four in a row to close out the regular season. UCLA’s streak was almost over before it began: The Bruins trailed by 11 at halftime and by five with less than 90 seconds to go against Michigan State in the First Four. Mick Cronin’s club bounced back, forced extra time, and started racing 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. An Alex Reese 3-pointer sent the Bruins into overtime for the second time in the tournament against Alabama, but UCLA kept their balance and dominated the overtime period. He then found a way to win a grinder game against Michigan, keeping the Wolverines at 49 points, the season low, and using 28 points from Johnny Juzang.
A great thing that we have learned
UCLA is elastic. Winning two games in overtime and a third by two points takes a bit of luck, but lot from the heart. The Bruins have rebounded from large deficits (Michigan State) and have struggled and held after losing a lead (Alabama). They won games in the ’80s and’ 50s. They won when Juzang shot 5 of 18, as he did against Alabama. UCLA has been far from perfect in this tournament, but they’ve done enough to get a chance to win late and make big plays when it mattered. And sometimes that’s all it takes to make a deep run in this unpredictable environment.
In the best case
The best case for UCLA against Gonzaga is simply being in the game with a chance to win in the final minutes. How can the Bruins get to that point? They will need the trio of Juzang, Jaime Jaquez Jr. and Tyger Campbell to play near-perfect basketball. The 3-point shot can be a great draw in a game like this, and Juzang, Jaquez, Jules Bernard and David Singleton have all had brilliant moments from deep within this tournament. Meanwhile, UCLA somehow controls the pace, forces Gonzaga to run in the middle of the court and does not give up the grueling 10-0 run. If the Bruins do all of those things, they have a chance. Of course, all of that is easier said than done.
Worst of cases
Unlike Michigan and Alabama, the Bruins can’t keep the score low against an offense as historically good as Gonzaga’s. Drew Timme eats inside against Cody Riley, Corey Kispert recovers from a cold night of shooting against USC and the Bruins are impressed by the undefeated Zags. It wouldn’t exactly be a surprise – Gonzaga has done it with everyone else he’s played in this tournament. If all three don’t fall in love with the Bruins, it will be difficult for UCLA to stick with this one.
X Factor: Cody Riley
Riley is a talented but frustrating player leading the Bruins. He really is the only center at UCLA capable of playing someone like Timme; rookie 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 he wasn’t on the bench with foul trouble, and he came strong in the end against Alabama with some late baskets. Slowing down Gonzaga starts with slowing down Timme, and the Bruins need 25 minutes or more of “good” Riley if they’re going to get a real shot at this one.
One Shining-Moment Candidate: Johnny Juzang
Juzang has been one of the best players in this tournament. Battling repeated ankle injuries, he has still hit one great shot after another for the Bruins throughout this miraculous run, including scoring more than half of the team’s points against Michigan. If the Bruins are going to achieve the unthinkable against Gonzaga, they will need a heroic performance from Juzang.
It’s hard to bet against this team with the way it has fought throughout the tournament, but UCLA’s streak will come to an end against Gonzaga. The Bruins won’t be able to stop Timme on the inside, and that will open things up for the Bulldogs guards on the perimeter. And while Juzang will bring him in despite his injured ankle, it won’t be enough to beat the undefeated Zags. Regardless of what happens against Gonzaga, this race sets the tone for many future successes under Cronin at Westwood.
The SI tournament newsletter looks at everything you need to know about the Big Dance – what just happened and what will happen next. Sign up for Morning Madness here.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.