Teams that are no strangers to the Final Four will try to add to their respective total when UCLA and Michigan face off in the East Region final on Tuesday night in Lucas Oil Stadium.
No one is that surprised that the Wolverines (23-4) have made it to the Elite Eight since they were the top seed in the region after winning the regular-season Big Ten title. Now after impressive victories over Texas Southern, LSU, and Florida State, Michigan is aiming for its ninth Final Four appearance (two of those have officially been vacated by the NCAA), with the last coming in 2018 when the Wolverines eventually lost in the national title game to Villanova.
On the other side, few expected the Bruins (21-9) to make it this far. As the 11-seed, UCLA was one of the final teams to even get in the field of 68, and now finds itself a win shy of the Final Four. After escaping Michigan State in overtime in the First Four, the Bruins defeated BYU and Abilene Christian before knocking off 2-seed Alabama 88-78 in overtime on Sunday.
UCLA's NCAA Tournament history is well documented, highlighted by a record 11 national championships (seven of those in a row), but it's been a while since the Bruins have even come remotely close to another title shot. UCLA's last Elite Eight appearance was in 2008. That Bruins team, led by Kevin Love and Russell Westbrook, went on to the Final Four, and head coach Andy Enfield's squad is hoping to become the 19th in program history to do so (one appearance vacated) by upsetting Michigan.
Head-to-head, UCLA leads the all-time series with Michigan 12-6, the last meeting taking place in December 2017. The teams have faced off in the NCAA Tournament four times previously as well. The Bruins lead those games 3-1, including a 91-80 victory in the 1965 national championship game. The other three matchups occurred in the second round, the most recent in 1998.
East Region Final: No. 11 UCLA (21-9) vs. No. 1 Michigan (23-4)
Time: Tuesday, March 30 at approximately 9:57 p.m. ET
Where: Lucas Oil Stadium (Indianapolis)
Spread: Michigan -7.5
Keys for UCLA
The Bruins' NCAA Tournament run has been powered by the guard tandem of Johnny Juzang and Jaime Jacquez Jr. Those two are responsible for almost half (147) of UCLA's scoring output (314) through four games. The Bruins obviously will need both Juzang and Jacquez to continue to put up points, but it's important that their teammates step up, which is what happened in the Sweet 16 win over Alabama.
Against the Crimson Tide, all five starters went for double digits, with Jules Bernard tying Jacquez for the team lead in scoring (17 points) followed by Juzang, Tyson Campbell (13 each), and Cody Riley (10). More importantly, guard David Singleton came off of the bench and put up a season-high 15 points, coming up big late after Juzang fouled out with a little more than two minutes remaining in regulation. UCLA needs contributions throughout its lineup to prevent Michigan from focusing its defensive efforts on stopping Juzang and Jacquez.
Two other areas that the Bruins have excelled in during this tournament are defending the 3-point line and limiting turnovers. On the season, UCLA is holding teams to 34.2 percent shooting from beyond the arc but has ratcheted up its perimeter defense recently. In advancing to the Elite Eight, the Bruins limited opponents to 20-for-82 from long range, or 24.3 percent. It will be important to maintain this performance against a Michigan team that ranks among the nation's top 15 in 3-point shooting at better than 38 percent. Also, UCLA enters this game with a plus-seven turnover margin in the NCAA Tournament. Taking care of the ball on offense should only increase the Bruins' efficiency on that end of the court while any turnovers they can force the Wolverines into will help slow down a team that's averaging 81.3 points per game over its three victories.
Keys for Michigan
The Wolverines have continued their efficient offensive production during their stay in Indiana. One of the nation's top shooting teams, Michigan has made more than half (83-for-165) of its field goal attempts over its three NCAA Tournament wins. The Wolverines also are typically deadly from both 3-point range and the free-throw line, but they employed a slightly different game plan against Florida State.
In Sunday's win over the Seminoles, Michigan made a conscious effort to get the ball inside and it worked to near perfection. The Wolverines outscored Florida State 50-28 in points in the paint while only connecting on three of 11 3-point attempts. Big Ten Freshman of the Year Hunter Dickinson and forward Brandon Johns Jr. combined for 28 points and 14 rebounds, while guard Franz Wagner chipped in with a double-double (13 points, 10 rebounds).
Michigan out-rebounded the Seminoles 37-31 and, more importantly, saddled top scorers M.J. Walker, RaiQuan Gray, and Scottie Barnes with foul trouble. The Wolverines made nearly three times as many free throws (15) as FSU shot (six), but that also came on 23 total attempts. It was an uncharacteristic effort for a team that ranks in the top 20 nationally in shooting from the charity stripe, and something that needs to be tightened up on Tuesday night.
It's been quite a run for UCLA, who is looking to join VCU (2011) as the only teams to go from the First Four to the Final Four. The Bruins have had to battle their way to get to this point, including winning two games in overtime, and haven't shrunk from any challenge. The latest was surviving a furious second-half rally from Alabama that was capped off by a buzzer-beating, game-tying 3-pointer to send their Sweet 16 matchup into overtime. UCLA recovered nicely, outscoring the Crimson Tide 23-13 in the extra period.
Meanwhile Michigan may have entered the NCAA Tournament as the perceived weakest No. 1 seed, but the Wolverines have looked every bit the part in beating their three opponents by an average of 14 points per game. Yes, head coach Juwan Howard's team is not at full strength due to the absence of forward Isaiah Livers (foot injury), but Michigan has found a way to maintain its impressive offensive production and either force the opposition to play their preferred style or, as the Wolverines did against Florida State on Sunday, change it up a little bit and still excel.
UCLA's run has been impressive, and the Bruins have every reason to be proud of what they have accomplished. But their Cinderella run ends on Tuesday night against Michigan, a team with more size, more balance and the ability to shoot the ball really well from any spot on the floor. Howard leads the Wolverines to a stage he's familiar with from his own playing days.