The UCLA Bruins have set out to prove that they belong in the NCAA tournament after their at-large place was widely questioned, and the Gonzaga Bulldogs are hoping to prove that they can put together a performance worthy of their high-seeding. Both teams have proved their point to an extent, but neither will be interested in going home for at least one more round.
All eight of the NCAA tournament’s Sweet 16 matchups have their fair share of intrigue and fascination. However, Friday’s opening game between Gonzaga and UCLA, which starts the second day of action, might just be the best of the bunch.
The Bruins have stunned most experts and have probably busted their fair share of brackets. An uninspiring season, where their best results were “close defeats”, UCLA were the most contested of the tournament committee’s at-large selections. They entered the tournament as significant underdogs, but they beat a pair of balanced and strong teams in SMU and UAB to get to this stage.
It starts – as is often the case in March Madness – with an experienced guard playing strong basketball. Bryce Alford (well-supported by Norman Powell) had 27 points against SMU, 22 against UAB and he showed a willingness to break through the box and attack opposition defenses.
UCLA has some skill and defensive ability on the inside too. Kevon Looney and Tony Parker have come into their own in the last couple of games and suddenly UCLA looks like a balanced team that many are outright picking the Bruins to cause a major upset in the Sweet 16.
Gonzaga entered the tournament with a history of recent tournament struggles. They were picked by many as a team to get upset early in the competition and it looked highly likely when they had to play an Iowa team that demolished Davidson in round two. The Hawkeyes posed little problem to an offense that fired scoring 87 points one game after they knocked down 86 against North Dakota State.
Kevin Pangos and Kyle Wiltjer form an experience backcourt guard duo, while this team plays a pretty balanced brand of offensive basketball. They share the basketball, shoot it pretty well and have a player in Przemek Karnowski, who they can get the ball inside and expect to make plays. Having a seven-footer is usually a big help to both an offense and a defense. He hasn’t had a big impact yet, but his presence in the middle makes a difference anyway.
Betting Preview: Gonzaga (-8.5) vs. UCLA
It’s difficult to pick the upset, but it isn’t difficult to pick against the spread in this case. UCLA may experience a little bit of a comedown after their momentum fuelled first weekend. However, they are a skilled team that played most of their biggest games closer than nine points. We expect them to make sure that this game remains competitive, even if Gonzaga pulls away with the win.
The Pick: UCLA (+8.5) (www.betonline.ag)
Writer’s Record Against The Spread: 35-29