The No. 11 UCLA Bruins look to extend their seemingly improbable NCAA tournament run against the formidable No. 2 Gonzaga Bulldogs in Friday night’s South Region semifinal at NRG Stadium in Houston.
The lowest-seeded team left in any region, UCLA wasn’t expected to get out of the second round, let alone make the Sweet 16 in consecutive seasons after several bad losses earlier this year, including to Gonzaga 87-74 on their home floor back on Dec. 13.
Nevertheless, head coach Steve Alford’s team got a little help from a goaltending call in the closing seconds the 60-59 opening win over Southern Methodist and then proved it belonged with a convincing 92-75 thumping of UAB in the third round.
However, the Bruins have struggled against the elite teams outside of the Pac-12 this season, and now meet a high-octane Bulldogs squad that has lost only twice all year and has won their first two tournament games by an average of 14.5 points.
And Gonzaga is certainly a program hungry for success deeper in the tournament. The Bulldogs enter their first Sweet 16 since 2009, and seek their second all-time trip to the Elite Eight and first since 1999.
Whichever school comes out on top will face either No. 1 Duke or No. 5 Utah in the regional final Sunday.
Despite being nine-point favorites, Gonzaga and leading scoring and junior forward Kyle Wiltjer aren’t looking beyond the Bruins, and evidently don’t believe the loss earlier in the year gives the Bruins any sort of “edge,” according to The Seattle Times.
“Absolutely not,” Wiltjer told The Times. “We’re at the point in the season where we’re playing with a chip on our shoulder.”
Wiltjer put up two of the more impressive scoring outputs so far in the tournament. He lit up No. 15 North Dakota State for 23 points and eight rebounds, and dropped another 24 points on No. 7 Iowa, and has shot a combined 6-for-9 from three-point range. On the season, Wiltjer’s knocked down 47.9 percent of his attempts from beyond the arc.
Hot shooting from Wiltjer and senior guard Kevin Pangos has powered the Bulldogs tenth-ranked offense, averaging 79.1 points per game and tops in the country with a combined team shooting percentage of 52.4. Pangos is second on the team with 11.8 points and 4.9 assists, and registers a 44.9 percent success rate from deep.
Seven-foot-one junior center Przemek Karnowski holds down the Bulldogs’ post, averaging 10.9 points 5.7 rebounds, and a block per game. Freshman forward Domantas Sabonis leads the squad with 7.1 rebounds per contest, and put up maybe is best game of the season with 18 points and nine rebounds against Iowa.
From top to bottom, it’s as complete a lineup the Bruins have faced all season, but UCLA own plenty of topline talent, as well. Alford thinks his team deserves more credit than it’s received during the tournament.
“There’s been a lot made of that,” Alford said. “I wish there was more made of what our young men have been able to do and grow up and mature and become the team they are. We weren’t one of the last four in the tournament.”
The Bruins have won six of their last seven games in part due to point guard Bryce Alford scoring 22 or more points in three of those victories. Bryce Alford has been just as lethal as the Bulldogs from three in the tournament, nailing 12 of his 16 attempts.
Senior guard Norman Powell’s been just as hot as Alford, scoring in double-digits in 10 straight, and picking up seven assists and 10 rebounds in the tournament.
UCLA can also counter the Bulldogs frontline with freshman forward Kevon Looney, who’s averaging 11.6 points and 9.2 rebounds per game, and junior Tony Parker with 11.4 points and 6.6 boards, with both standing at 6-foot-9.
Start Time: 7:15 p.m. ET
TV Channel: CBS
Live Online Stream: A live online stream is available at the tournament’s official site here.
Betting Odds: Gonzaga -9
Over/Under: 144 points
Prediction: Gonzaga over UCLA, 75-68