West Coast powers Gonzaga, UCLA set to add another chapter to brief, but memorable rivalry
March 22, 2023 Updated Wed., March 22, 2023 at 6:57 p.m.
LAS VEGAS – Nearly two years later, Mick Cronin still hasn’t watched the video of Jalen Suggs’ 40-foot buzzer beater that carried Gonzaga past UCLA 93-90 in overtime at the 2021 Final Four in Indianapolis.
The Bruins’ fourth-year head coach watched video of that instant classic as well as Gonzaga’s 83-63 rout over UCLA last season at T-Mobile Arena, but he froze the image after Johnny Juzang scored on a putback with 3.3 seconds remaining.
“You mean that shot?” Cronin said. “I studied the game (Monday) night. I hit the pause as soon as we tied it. What do I need to watch that for – you think I’m a masochist?”
Suggs is in his second NBA season, but several holdovers remain – including the Zags’ Drew Timme, Anton Watson (11 minutes) and Julian Strawther (DNP) and UCLA’s Tyger Campbell, Jaime Jaquez Jr. and David Singleton – as the two West Coast powers renew an entertaining rivalry Thursday in the Sweet 16 at T-Mobile.
“There’s a familiarity with our teams obviously back to the ’21 Final Four,” Zags coach Mark Few said. “So it’s kind of Act III within kind of a small time frame.”
The roles are slightly reversed. GU was ranked No. 1 in the past two meetings and was the top overall seed in the 2021 NCAA Tournament. The 11th-seeded Bruins rattled off five wins, including one in the First Four, knocking off No. 1 seed Michigan and No. 2 Alabama before Suggs ended their season.
The Zags and Bruins were 1-2 in the AP poll when Gonzaga posted the 20-point win last season.
This time around, seventh-ranked UCLA (31-5) is seeded second in the West Region. No. 9 Gonzaga (30-5) is the West’s third seed. The Bruins are slight favorites.
While Cronin was scouring GU video, he was certain former Zags assistant coach and current Arizona head coach Tommy Lloyd has been chatting with his former boss at Gonzaga.
UCLA won its first regular-season title since 2013, but the Wildcats took the Pac-12 Tournament with a 61-59 victory over the Bruins.
“I would assume (Lloyd) has probably had a conversation with Mark Few,” Cronin said. “Arizona plays a similar style (to Gonzaga), so you have to think about some of the things Arizona did to us the last two times we played them.”
Gonzaga has won five of seven previous meetings and two of three in March Madness.
The Bruins scored the last 11 points to snatch a memorable 73-71 win over GU in the 2006 Sweet 16 in Oakland, California.
UCLA isn’t at full strength. Center Adem Bona returned from a shoulder injury to play 21 minutes in Saturday’s win over Northwestern. Kenneth Nwuba, who has battled a hip/groin issue in recent weeks, was seen limping in the game. Both seem likely to play.
Singleton, one of best 3-pointer shooters in UCLA history, rolled his ankle late against Northwestern. The Bruins lost Jaylen Clark, the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year, when he reportedly suffered a season-ending Achilles injury in early March.
Cronin was coy about the injuries, saying, “Everybody’s day to day, including me.
“Obviously, our team is much different than before Jaylen’s injury, dealing with Bona’s injury and now David’s. You have to adjust and roll. There’s no time to cry. There’s always a way to win a game, so we have to make sure we’re prepared.”
The Bruins might need all hands on deck, especially among the bigs with Bona, Nwuba and Mac Etienne, to try to slow down Timme, Gonzaga’s All-American forward . Bona and Etienne both are 6-foot-10, 235 pounds. Nuwba is 6-foot-10, 255 pounds.
Timme has averaged 24.5 points in Gonzaga’s two tournament wins, and he’s moving up the NCAA Tournament all-time scoring list.
“The hardest thing to do is prepare for a guy that puts pressure on the officials every time he’s in the low post,” Cronin said. “So you have to defend without fouling, which is really hard with the way he plays.”
Gonzaga’s concerns center on UCLA’s defense, which has limited 31 of 36 opponents to under 70 points. The Bruins are sixth nationally at 60.2 points allowed per game while the Zags’ offense ranks first at 87.3 points. UCLA foes have made just 40.5% of their shots, 31.0% on 3-pointers.
Few’s other concern: Containing UCLA point guard Campbell (13.4 points, 4.9 assists), forward Jaquez (17.5 points, 8.1 rebounds), freshman guard Amari Bailey (averaged 17.0 points in past five games) and Singleton (217 made 3s and 43.4% career accuracy from deep).
“This game will come down to us taking care of the ball. Their defense is elite, and us being able to make plays and find baskets against it,” Few said.
“On the flip side, somehow some way keep Jaquez and Tyger, and now they’re getting great play out of Bailey since he’s come into the lineup, do our best to keep those guys in check.”
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