Two much different first-round wins lead No. 5 Saint Mary's and No. 4 UCLA into an excellent second-round matchup.
Saint Mary's blasted No. 12 Indiana 82-53 in a contest that was never really in doubt. Outside of perhaps the Gaels' win last month over Gonzaga, it was the most impressive showing of their 2021-22 season.
"We're a gritty, not pretty team," senior guard Logan Johnson said following the win. "We're going to find ways to get it done. We know, once we get going defensively, and especially offensively, that that's when teams are in trouble and they really find out what they're stepping foot into."
UCLA will have to know what it's in for immediately on Saturday after having to furiously rally Thursday against No. 13 Akron. The Bruins trailed by eight points at the under-eight timeout before locking down defensively and finally seeing some shots fall.
"We just gathered together and stayed calm," senior guard Jules Bernard said in the postgame press conference. "That was the most important thing, and [getting] stops on defense, and obviously, like coach [Mick Cronin] said, the big thing was offensive boards."
The Bruins finished plus-three on the offensive glass but may find matching that production difficult against a Saint Mary's team that ranks third in the nation in percentage of offensive rebounds allowed.
That's just one key to this marquee matchup of California squads.
East Region: No. 5 Saint Mary's (26-7) vs. No. 4 UCLA (26-7)
Time: Saturday, March 19 at 7:10 p.m. ET
Where: Moda Center (Portland, Ore.)
Spread: UCLA -2.5
Keys for Saint Mary's
After a slow start, Saint Mary's kicked into gear in the latter portion of the first then carried that over into the beginning of the second to overwhelm Indiana. Over that critical stretch, the Gaels outscored the Hoosiers a staggering 51-15.
Indiana's inability to find quality looks at the hoop snowballed. The Saint Mary's defense was at its most constricting, holding the Hoosiers below 40 percent shooting for the game and just 20 percent from 3-point range. The Gaels' length may not result in many turnovers — UCLA's one of the country's best teams when it comes to avoiding takeaways — but frustrating the Bruins' shot selection will be critical.
On the other end of the floor, Tommy Kuhse and Alex Ducas staying hot from 3-point range is a dangerous complement to the stingy Saint Mary's defense.
Keys for UCLA
Getting Johnny Juzang going may be the A-1 most important facet for the Bruins continuing their season. Since turning his ankle at Oregon last month, UCLA's season-long leading scorer has been a step off — including in Thursday's win when he shot just 2-of-7 from the floor.
His usual 3-point shooting is a key to the effective off-the-dribble offense Jaime Jaquez Jr. provides. Extending the Saint Mary's defense with some early 3-pointers, including some from Tyger Campbell, whose long-range stroke has improved dramatically this season, will be crucial for opening up better looks at the rim.
Saint Mary's looked especially locked in against Indiana, and a Gaels team that plays like that for the rest of the Tournament can absolutely reach the Final Four. UCLA under-performed against Akron, but the veteran Bruins have responded well to Cronin's instruction coming off subpar showings.
Juzang regaining his pre-injury form may well make or break UCLA on Saturday.