UCLA begins its pursuit of a return trip to the Final Four on Thursday, facing Mid-American Conference champion Akron in East Region action. The Bruins came into the 2021-22 season with lofty expectations after last year's run, which ended only when Gonzaga's Jalen Suggs hit one of the most incredible shots in NCAA Tournament history.
A variety of challenges surfaced for UCLA throughout the campaign, as detailed in this excellent Los Angeles Times article by Ben Bolch. Enduring all that it did and emerging as a No. 4 seed speaks to the resilience of the Bruins, who will need to dig deep once more against a quality, upset-minded opponent.
Akron rides an eight-game winning streak into March Madness, which culminated in a 75-55 rout of rival Kent State in the MAC Tournament final. The Zips are dangerous when shooting the 3-pointer, oftentimes a vital component for any Big Dance upset.
East Region: No. 13 Akron Zips (24-9) vs. No. 4 UCLA Bruins (25-7)
Time: Thursday, March 17 at 9:50 p.m. ET
Where: Moda Center (Portland, Ore.)
Spread: UCLA -14
Keys for Akron
Akron's late-season run included outputs of 82 and 91 points in wins over Bowling Green and Ohio, but make no mistake: The Zips can and will grind the tempo way down. Their possessions last more than 19 seconds per KenPom.com, one of the longest such averages in the nation and the catalyst of the slowest tempo among all 68 teams to make this Tournament.
Creating long, frustrating defensive possessions could be critical for Akron. And, compounding the prospects for an irritated UCLA defense is the team's ability to get to the foul line. The Zips rank fifth among all Div. I programs in free throws attempted per field-goal attempts. Almost 21 percent of their points come at the charity stripe, and UCLA is coming off a Pac-12 Tournament championship game loss to Arizona in which foul trouble played a critical part.
Keys for UCLA
Few teams protect possessions as effectively as UCLA, which commits turnovers on just 13.4 percent of all its trips down the floor. Whether speeding up the pace, as the Bruins did back in November against a methodical Villanova bunch, or slowing it down as it did successfully in the first matchup with Arizona, UCLA makes the most of possessions.
Avoiding turnovers to create quality looks at the rim is crucial to denying Akron an opportunity to dictate the pace. UCLA's perimeter scorers — Johnny Juzang, Jaime Jaquez Jr. and Jules Bernard — all proved adept at creating shots off the dribble in last year's NCAA Tournament. They've excelled in that regard this season, as well, though Juzang sputtered a bit late in the season after sustaining an ankle injury.
Akron's style isn't particularly easy for an unfamiliar opponent, but UCLA head coach Mick Cronin knows plenty about counterpart John Groce's methods. Groce comes from Thad Matta's coaching tree, and was at Ohio State the same time Cronin was head coach at Cincinnati. Although Cronin's UCLA teams have adopted a more electric offensive approach, his Bearcats teams operated with a style similar to that of Groce's squads.
Don't expect the Bruins to be thrown off by a slower pace of play. While USC was able to leverage it to its advantage in the first meeting with UCLA, two wins in the past two weeks over the Trojans should benefit the Bruins against the Zips — in particular because UCLA won't face a size disparity.