The NCAA Tournament First Four functions in one of two ways: For the most unlikely of Davids, the opportunity to slay Goliath rests on advancing past Dayton. In other words, four No. 16 seeds face off in two games for the right to play one of the four No. 1 seeds. Dayton also is the first step for the very last teams invited into the field of 68.
These at-large invitees to the Big Dance are technically part of the NCAA Tournament, but must play their way into a region. St. Bonaventure and UCLA are two such teams.
Both somewhat defy convention for the First Four. In St. Bonaventure's case, the Bonnies beat out some recognizable names from both power and mid-major conferences — teams including Oklahoma State, Saint Mary's and USC — to land a place in Dayton, despite sporting a shaky KenPom.com ranking of No. 69.
Coincidentally, the Bonnies might owe First Four opponent UCLA thanks for their inclusion in the Tournament. Had the Bruins not swept the season series with rival USC, the Trojans might have landed in the field. As it stands, however, UCLA's two win over USC, coupled with victories away from home against Kentucky and at Arizona, earned the Bruins a First Four bid.
For the program with the most NCAA Tournament championships (11), 2018 marks the first-ever First Four appearance for UCLA.
First Four: No. 11 St. Bonaventure Bonnies vs. No. 11 UCLA Bruins
Time: Approximately 9:10 p.m. ET (Tuesday)
Where: University of Dayton Arena (Dayton, OH)
Keys for St. Bonaventure
The Bonnies face a few critical disadvantages in terms of matchups with UCLA, most notably in the paint. The Bruins' size advantage could make rebounding especially challenging for St. Bonaventure, thus the best course of action is clear: Ensure as few caroms as possible come off the rim.
On St. Bonaventure's side of the ball, that's simple enough in theory. The Bonnies' team 3-point shooting ranks among the best in this NCAA Tournament field, with guard Jaylen Adams connecting at an especially blistering 45.7 percent pace. St. Bonaventure needs both Adams and his backcourt mate, Matt Mobley, to get hot and neutralize UCLA's size advantage.
Meanwhile, with St. Bonaventure boasting one of the more impressive turnover margins (+2.9) in the nation. The Bonnies must generate turnovers to turn the game's complexion into their favor.
Keys for UCLA
St. Bonaventure has no one the size of UCLA center Thomas Welsh, and that's an advantage the Bruins need to exploit early and often.
The 7-footer Welsh has an impressive offensive repertoire, which includes a newly gained 3-point shot to go with the soft mid-range jumper that has been his career-long calling card. He also has shown off a new array of back-to-the-basket moves in recent weeks, including during his 17-point, 17-rebound game in the Pac-12 Tournament loss to Arizona. Welsh played arguably his best game of the season going head-to-head with DeAndre Ayton.
Getting Welsh going early, both on offense and the boards, should free up space for Aaron Holiday as the game progresses. Holiday is this matchup's best singular talent, and UCLA will need him to have room to operate should this game be tight down the stretch.
St. Bonaventure's a team built with some veteran savvy. Adams and Mobley are seniors, and while LaDarien Griffin and Courtney Stockard — the latter of which missed the Atlantic 10 Tournament loss to Davidson — are juniors. If all are healthy and available, that's an edge for St. Bonaventure.
UCLA's stars, Holiday and Welsh, might be seniors. However, several youngsters fill key roles around them. The Bruins' youth has showed at times throughout the season, and explains why UCLA is playing in the First Four as opposed to jockeying for a top-four seed in one of the regions.
Still, when UCLA's youthful contributors like Kris Wilkes, Chris Smith and Jaylen Hands get going, the Bruins can compete with any team in the nation. If UCLA comes out with energy similar to its second-half showing at USC on March 3, or in the overtime loss to Arizona, the Bruins should cruise. But that's also a major "if," given the way this season has unfolded for UCLA.