After a very successful season, UCLA enters into post season play with a 27-4 record and a 3 seed in the West. When UCLA entered the tournament last year, no player had any NCAA tournament experience on the roster and UCLA was faced with a daunting 8 seed. Now, every player who plays significant minutes has had tournament experience which should help UCLA player calmer and looser, as they’ve "been here" before. There is some debate whether or not UCLA deserves a 2 seed. The argument comes down to did UCLA do enough to earn the 2 seed over Notre Dame. UCLA’s argument features the fact that UCLA won the head to head match up AT Notre Dame, while Notre Dame boasts the better strength of schedule, playing in the big east, with more big profile victories. However you feel about UCLA’s seeding, the bigger concern is WHERE the Bruins are playing. UCLA has been sent to Spokane, Washington for the first 4 rounds of the tournament, but a potential 2nd round match up looms against underseeded 11 seed Gonzaga on their own home court. I’ll get to that game and the rest of UCLA’s bracket, but first a preview of UCLA’s first round opponent, Montana.
While UCLA was handed a very tough road in the tournament starting in the 2nd round, UCLA’s first round match up should be a laugher. Montana comes into the tournament with a 18-14 record out of the Big Sky conference. Montana finished 3rd place in their conference but made the tournament due to winning their conference tournament. UCLA may actually have one of the most favorable first round matchups, as Montana was looking to be a shoo-in for a 16 seed. What jumps out when you look at their resume is that they went 0-4 against RPI top 100 teams, while at the same time suffered 7 losses to teams with RPIs between 100-199, and 3 losses to teams with sub 200 RPIs. The toughest team Montana faced all season was, surprisingly, Gonzaga, whom they lost to by 18 points at home.
UCLA has been known to be an undersized team, where most teams that UCLA faces off against hold a size advantage over the Bruins, but UCLA’s level of talent and hustle wins out (exception when facing Stanford, of course). UCLA matches up size wise much better against the Grizzles, with the following starting matchups:
Doreena Campbell: 5’10" Stephanie Stender: 5’11"
Darxia Morris: 5’8" Kenzie De Boer: 5’11"
Atonye Nyingifa: 5’11" Sarah Ena Jessa Loman Linford: 5’11"
Markel Walker: 6’1" Jessa Loman Linford: 6’1"
Jasmine Dixon: 6’0" Alyssa Smith: 6’0"
Despite Montana’s slight size advantage amongst the guards, it is a rare sight to see UCLA even in height in the paint. Looking at the season statistics for Montana, they go deep into their bench with 10 players averaging at least 10 minutes a game, so fatigue might not be too big of an issue for Montana. As a team, Montana shoots 72% from the freethrow line, a decent 34% from 3, 38% overall. The biggest problem Montana may face, besides the rather obvious gap in talent, is the fact that Montana may be too balanced as a team. Most upsets tend to happen when a lower seeded team is led by a star player that can take over a game. Montana spreads out their minutes so evenly, and their scoring is not dominated by any one player (only one player average double digits a game, Katie Baker at 11.9 a game), and no one player is a particularly dangerous 3 point shooter who can get hot, with Torry Hill being best at 38%.
The big question will be how effective UCLA’s press harasses Montana. UCLA forces 21.8 turnovers a game and has a +5 turnover margin per game, compared to +1.5 for Montana. I doubt Montana has faced a press looking anything like UCLA’s, and if Montana turns the ball over in bunches (which I expect they will) leading to transition points for UCLA, this game should be over by halftime. History is also going against the Grizzlies. In the history of the NCAA womens basketball tournament, no 14 seed has ever won a game (0-68 all time), while the bottom 3 seeds have a combined 1-204 since the field expanded to 64 teams in 1994 (fun fact, Stanford lost as a 1 seed to Harvard in 1998). If UCLA follows their normal beatdown formula against inferior opponents, UCLA will open up a double digit first half lead, push it to 20+ in the second half, allow the bench players to play most of the last 10 minutes, and close for something around a 15-20 point victory (realtimerpi.com predicts a 14 point victory).
Where things get interest in the tournament is after the first round. UCLA faces the winner of the 6-11 matchup between Iowa and Gonzaga. Despite being the lower seed, Gonzaga is predicted by nearly everyone to win this matchup, and is favored by realtimerpi to win 82-68. In fact, ESPN has UCLA on upset watch, predicting that if a big upset happens, it will be Gonzaga knocking off UCLA. Why is this? Gonzaga is playing at home, where they are 12-1 on the season losing only to Stanford by 6 points (Iowa is 6-5 on the road this year, further increasing the belief of a first round upset). Gonzaga swept through their conference season with a 16-0 record and are on an 18 game winning streak. What makes Gonzaga such a dangerous team is that they do have a star player, Point Guard Courtney Vandersloot, who on the season has a ridiculous 327 assists against only 98 turnovers, averaging over 10 assists per game, and could be very successful against UCLA’s press. Their hot streak, hot player, and home court advantage has many Bruin fans crying foul and national pundits claiming UCLA got one of the toughest matchups for a top seed.
However, Gonzaga’s fantastic season should be taken with a grain of salt. 3 of gonzaga’s four losses have come to USC, Stanford, and Notre Dame, all familiar opponents of UCLA, showing that Gonzaga has not had success against higher level teams. In fact, Gonzaga’s only win against a team in the tournament is, interestingly enough, Montana. Going by RPI, Gonzaga’s best win is against RPI 55 BYU who didn’t make the tournament, and next best are dual wins against RPI 99 and 100 teams St. Mary’s and Pepperdine. Add to that fact, that as impressive as Gonzaga has been at home, UCLA has been equally impressive on the road, losing only twice all season, once at Stanford, and once on a neutral court against Stanford, so UCLA shouldn’t be too rattled against Gonzaga. If anything, the home court might serve more to give Gonzaga an emotional boost than to rattle UCLA.
Once we have a better idea of who UCLA is facing in the 2nd round, I’ll have a preview of that game, and should UCLA win that, they face a very tricky sweet 16 matchup against 2 seed Xavier, and if they get past that game, it’s a fourth match up on the season against Stanford. But we are getting ahead of ourselves. UCLA does battle with Montana on Saturday at 3:30pm, and the game should be televised on ESPN2.