In one of the final matchups of the first round of the 2021 NCAA Tournament, a UCLA team fresh off a First Four overtime win over Michigan State on Thursday will take the floor against a BYU squad making its first appearance in the Big Dance since 2015 and seeking its first trip to the second weekend since 2011.
Saturday's meeting will be the 23rd between these two programs, with the previous split perfectly down the middle at 11 wins apiece. These two sides squared off last season, and it was BYU who came away victorious, snapping a three-game losing streak against the Bruins. UCLA won by 10 in the last meeting away from Los Angeles — more than 32 years ago in December of 1988 — but is just 2-5 all-time against BYU outside of Pauley Pavilion.
East Region: No. 11 UCLA Bruins (18-9) vs. No. 6 BYU Cougars (20-6)
Time: Saturday, March 20 at 9:40 p.m. ET
Where: Hinkle Fieldhouse (Indianapolis)
Spread: BYU -3.5
Keys for UCLA
The Bruins have had a mixed bag of results in their other two tournament berths as an 11-seed, losing in the first round in 2005 before falling in the Sweet 16 in 2015. But UCLA bounced back from a loss in its only previous First Four appearance (2018) with its win on Thursday night, a performance from which second-year head coach Mick Cronin — last year's Pac-12 Coach of the Year — can certainly build momentum. The Bruins trailed 44-33 at halftime before reversing that score in the second half to tie the game at 77 and force overtime, during which UCLA held Michigan State to just three points en route to the 86-80 win.
The Bruins thrived this season thanks to their ability to control the ball, finishing the regular season with just 11.2 turnovers per game (46th in Division I) and lost just eight against the Spartans. Sophomore guard Jaime Jaquez Jr. played all 45 minutes and led scorers with 27 points on Thursday night, while fellow sophomore and backcourt mate Johnny Juzang — who led the team in scoring in the regular season with 14.5 points per game — played 42 minutes and finished just behind Jaquez with 23 points.
Keys for BYU
Rebounding can be of the major sources of momentum shifts come postseason play, but head coach Mark Pope's team has a solid foundation in that regard. Like Cronin, Pope is in his second year at the helm of his new team and, despite his group's lack of overall experience — BYU returned less than 40 percent of the minutes played and just 29 percent of the scoring from last season's roster — has built the Cougars as one of the top teams on the glass, grabbing nearly 30 defensive rebounds per game, which led the WCC and was good for fifth in Division I.
Of BYU's six losses this season, three came at the hands of tournament top seed Gonzaga, with two of the other three coming by a total of seven points. In the conference tournament final against the Bulldogs, the Cougars held a 12-point lead at halftime but were nearly doubled up in the second half en route to an 88-78 loss. Four players scored in double figures with sophomore guard Trevin Knell the top scorer for BYU with 20 points, but the Cougars mustered just seven free throw attempts (5-of-7) to Gonzaga's 27 (18-of-27), which was a key turning point in the game. Also keep an eye on Matt Haarms; the 7-foot-3 graduate transfer center from Purdue averages 11.3 points, 4.8 rebounds, and a WCC-best two blocks per game.
UCLA certainly is riding high after a thrilling come-from-behind win in overtime on Thursday, and its assortment of dynamic playmakers provide plenty of reasons for optimism that this team could pull an upset or two. But BYU's dominance on the glass, combined with its top-30 marks in assists (16.6 per game, 17th) and 3-point shooting (37.8 percent, 24th), make this a versatile group that possesses the tools not only to make it out of the first round but also to turn some heads and make a run this March.
Prediction: BYU 75, UCLA 69
— 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.