Houston, TX (SportsNetwork.com) - The semifinals in the South Region of the NCAA Tournament begin Friday with a matchup featuring the 11th-seeded UCLA Bruins taking on the second-seeded Gonzaga Bulldogs at Houston's NRG Stadium.
The winner advances to the Elite Eight of the tournament, and will take on either Duke or Utah for a spot in the Final Four.
UCLA has turned haters into believers with their two tournament wins thus far. The Bruins, who were one of the most controversial programs to make the field of 68 on Selection Sunday, defeated SMU (60-59) on a questionable goaltending call, and then easily took down UAB (92-75) to reach the Sweet 16 for the first time in program history when seeded in the double digits.
Gonzaga's path was a bit easier, as the second-seeded Bulldogs went through North Dakota State (86-76) and Iowa (87-68) with relative ease. The Zags, who have only lost twice all season, sport a perfect 7-0 mark in neutral site games coming into this clash.
These two programs have only met three times on the basketball court in their series history, but the most recent matchup came earlier this season. Gonzaga earned an 87-74 win over the Bruins on Dec. 13 in Los Angeles to break a 1-1 series tie.
UCLA was able to take care of a UAB program that pulled the very first upset of the tournament in a win over third-seeded Iowa State last week. The Blazers used a powerful rebounding advantage to down the Cyclones, but the Bruins were ready for that in their matchup Saturday. UCLA finished the game with a 41-26 edge on the boards, while offensively the team shot 60.3 percent from the floor to overwhelm the Blazers. Tony Parker had a sensational game, leading the team with a 28-point, 12-rebound double-double. Bryce Alford, who made nine 3-pointers against SMU in the second round, netted 22 points with five assists. Norman Powell chipped in 15 points, Isaac Hamilton had 13 with seven assists, while Kevon Looney added another double-double with 10 points and 11 boards.
The Bruins' starting five is about as dangerous as it gets. All five are averaging a scoring total in double figures, led by Powell's 16.4 ppg, but the drop off from Hamilton (10.6 ppg) to Thomas Welsh (3.9 ppg) is pretty significant, and depth is something that will be needed against a fast-paced Gonzaga program. Alford adds 15.6 ppg and 172 assists, while Looney (11.6 ppg, 9.2 rpg) and Parker (11.4 ppg) round out the group of five players that help make up the large majority of UCLA's 72.2 ppg average. The team's defense has generally struggled this season, allowing 68.0 ppg to opponents on 41.7 percent shooting.
That could be music to Gonzaga's ears as the Bulldogs make the trip down to Houston. The Zags easily buried an Iowa squad that thrashed Davidson in the second round, by connecting on 61.5 percent of their shots from the field, including 10-of-16 from 3-point distance. Kentucky transfer Kyle Wiltjer was on point once again, collecting 24 points with seven rebounds on 10-of-12 shooting. Domantas Sabonis came off the bench to contribute 18 points and a team-best nine rebounds, while Kevin Pangos added 16 points in the lopsided victory. Gary Bell Jr. rounded out the team's double-digit scorers in the contest with 10 points.
UCLA's suspect defense could be the team's downfall against a Gonzaga program that leads the nation in field-goal percentage (52.6 percent) and averages 79.5 ppg with a 41-percent shooting touch from beyond the arc. Wiltjer dominates with a 17.1 ppg mark on 54.8 percent shooting, adding in 6.1 rpg that ranks second on the squad behind Sabonis's 7.1 boards per outing. Pangos (11.8 ppg), Przemek Karnowski (10.9 ppg) and Byron Wesley (10.5 ppg) all chip in with double-digit scoring averages for the Bulldogs, while Sabonis (9.7 ppg) teeters on the brink. It's not necessarily all about offense for the Zags, however. The Bulldogs allow opponents to score a meager 61.5 ppg on just 39.1 percent shooting.