Cinderella Bruins look to upset undefeated Bulldogs for a shot at the national title
Not too long ago, an NCAA Tournament matchup pitting the most decorated program in college basketball history against a team from the sans-football, small-budget West Coast Conference would be deemed a Cinderella vs. a juggernaut.
To be fair, that's still the case in 2021 — however, it's perennial WCC powerhouse Gonzaga with its five straight 30-plus-win seasons and an undefeated record coming in as the heavy favorite against a UCLA team that needed a rally in the First Four just to get into the field of 64.
In reaching the Final Four, UCLA joins LSU (1986), George Mason (2006), VCU (2011), and Loyola Chicago (2018) as the only No. 11 seeds ever to play in the national semifinal. The Bruins' bounce-back from a late-season slump has featured wins over two Big Ten teams, including top-seeded Michigan; the SEC champion, Alabama; and BYU, which gave Gonzaga its toughest game in the WCC season.
Gonzaga, meanwhile, is on perhaps the most dominant Tournament run since UNLV in 1990.
Final Four: East No. 11 UCLA (22-9) vs. West No. 1 Gonzaga (30-0)
Time: Saturday, April 3 at approximately 8:34 p.m. ET
Where: Lucas Oil Stadium (Indianapolis)
Spread: Gonzaga -14.0
Keys for UCLA
Playing without Chris Smith for much of the season, and sans Jalen Hill since early February, UCLA has learned to get by with smaller lineups. Cody Riley is punching above his proverbial weight class, playing a key role in the upset of a much bigger Michigan team.
The Bruins' version of small ball gave Michigan fits, and in Gonzaga, UCLA sees another long team. This time, however, the Bruins are up against a squad as dynamic on the perimeter as it is aggressive inside. The Zags have yet to show any real weaknesses, and teams' attempts to slow down the tempo have not worked.
UCLA's streaky shooting has been the catalyst of its Tournament run, most notably from the star run of Johnny Juzang. He and Jaime Jaquez Jr. have been electric, particularly in the clutch. Tyger Campbell's ability to penetrate and kick is central to the Bruins' offense, and UCLA will need him to avoid turnovers. Gonzaga doesn't rely on takeaways so much as forcing contested shots, but allowing the athletic Zags to get into transition is a good way for the game to be over before it really starts.
Defensively, Mick Cronin-coached teams play with fire — which can sometimes lead to foul whistles. It's imperative for UCLA to avoid losing any of its key players for long stretches, like in the Sweet 16 when Juzang fouled out or the First Four, when Riley and Jules Bernard both had four fouls.
Keys for Gonzaga
Gonzaga's dominance this season is too multifaceted to go line by line, but the most noteworthy statistic is its 63.1 percent shooting from inside the 3-point arc. The Zags are as close to automatic as it gets from inside. Couple that with a team 3-point average better than 37 percent, and Gonzaga is uniquely skilled at stretching defenses beyond their limits.
Drew Timme and Cody Kispert set the foundation, both ranking in the top 14 among all Div. I players in offensive rating per KenPom.com metrics. With Kispert shooting a staggering 45.3 percent from downtown, and Timme hitting more than 67 percent inside the arc, the duo is one of the most potent, complementary duos in recent memory.
Add explosive freshman Jalen Suggs, and it's no wonder Gonzaga has steamrolled its competition throughout the season. Gonzaga needs to simply stick with its identity, and, like it did USC in the Elite Eight, impose its will early. Since the First Four, UCLA has played the rest of its NCAA Tournament with early leads. Coming back against an offense like Gonzaga's is not what this Bruins bunch is built to do.
In 2015 and 1991, the nation witnessed undefeated teams lose in the national semifinals. The '90-'91 UNLV team may be the single greatest ever to not win a national championship. Gonzaga will go down in history this season one way or the other, regardless of how this Final Four turns out.
Fortunately for the Zags, a repeat of '91 and '15 is unlikely. The Bruins' Cinderella run is impressive, combining the signature defense Cronin teams are known for with a fun offensive style that gives playmakers like Juzang space to operate, but UCLA simply does not match up well with Gonzaga.
Prediction: Gonzaga 85, UCLA 64
— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.