Double-digit seeds vie for Sweet 16 berth in first-ever meeting
Before the weekend had come to an end, already a 1-seed, a 2-seed and a pair of 3-seeds had been handed an early exit from this year's NCAA Tournament. The Abilene Christian Wildcats, one of the teams who pulled off one of the aforementioned upsets against 3-seed Texas for its first Tournament win and undoubtedly the biggest win in school history, will get a chance to extend their time in Indianapolis when they take on the UCLA Bruins, who — after an overtime First Four win against Michigan State and opening-round win over 6-seed BYU — can clinch their fourth Sweet 16 appearance in 10 seasons with a victory on Monday.
This will be the first-ever meeting between these two programs, as Abilene Christian has never taken the court against any of the current Pac-12 schools. UCLA, meanwhile, is 6-0 all-time against Southland schools, including two wins against Stephen F. Austin.
East Region: No. 14 Abilene Christian (24-4) vs. No. 11 UCLA (19-9)
Time: Monday, March 22 at 5:15 p.m. ET
Where: Bankers Life Fieldhouse (Indianapolis)
Spread: UCLA -4.5
Keys for Abilene Christian
In its second NCAA Tournament appearance in school history, Abilene Christian held on for a thrilling 53-52 win over the Longhorns thanks to its defense allowing just 24 second-half points. The Wildcats finished the regular season atop Division I in turnover margin (+6.4) and top 10 in scoring defense (60.5 ppg), and they brought that same tight defense to its matchup with Texas by forcing 23 turnovers while losing only 11 of their own.
Abilene Christian had only two players tally 10 or more points in the opening round: Coryon Mason and Joe Pleasant, each of whom finished with 11 points. With his team trailing by one with just seconds remaining, Pleasant sank two free throws to push the Wildcats in front en route to the upset victory. Pleasant also added eight rebounds while Reggie Miller finished with seven points and as many rebounds, though he only notched two assists on Saturday after leading the team in that category with an average of more than double that mark (4.4) in 2020-21.
Keys for UCLA
UCLA entered the NCAA Tournament with four consecutive losses — all of which came by single digits — but has since rattled off a six-point overtime win in the First Four against Michigan State and an 11-point first-round win over BYU. The Bruins and Cougars were nearly identical in their rebounding and their overall shooting from the field and perfectly identical from the free-throw line, but two major distinctions were in the turnover battle and the shooting from 3-point range. UCLA forced 10 BYU turnovers while losing only four and made eight of its 19 3-point attempts while the Cougars made just three of their 17.
The Bruins' top two scorers to finish the season — excluding lone senior Chris Smith, who tore his ACL on Dec. 31 against Utah — were sophomore guards Johnny Juzang and Jaime Jaquez Jr., with junior guard Jules Bernard third in line. That trio continued to lead the way against BYU, with 27, 13 and 16 points, respectively, while four other Bruins combined to score the team's remaining 17 points. Juzang etched his name into the UCLA record books on Saturday night, joining Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Reggie Miller as the only players in school history to score at least 20 points in each of their first two career NCAA Tournament games.
While few expected Abilene Christian to be in this position after the opening round, the Wildcats' ability to surge back from a five-point halftime deficit and sink crucial free throws with the result hanging in the balance speaks to the level of resolve present in this resilient group. That stingy defense blended with early-tournament momentum will provide a tough test for UCLA, who was among the Pac-12 leaders during the regular season in 3-point shooting, rebounding, and limiting turnovers.
Prediction: Abilene Christian 71, UCLA 66
— Written by Juan Jose Rodriguez, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a 2019 graduate of the University of Notre Dame. Rodriguez was an intern for Athlon during summer 2017 and worked for a variety of media outlets on campus, including as the Editor-in-Chief of Scholastic Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @JuanJoseRG02.