At 7 p.m. nationwide on ESPN 2 UCLA will begin the three game set with Gonzaga, Kentucky, and Alabama that may determine its ultimate fate this season. Sound overly dramatic? If UCLA can win 2 of the three games they are looking like a good tournament team. If they win one of the three, they survived. If they lose all three, the question turns will they go into free fall and wash out in the PAC 12.
The first game is against Gonzaga. This is the middle of the three games in terms of difficulty. Part of UCLA's hope in this game is the Pac 12 referees with UCLA at home. UCLA is really good at drawing fouls and attempting free throws. UCLA leads the nation in total number of free throws attempted. If you watched the Arizona v. Gonzaga game with the exception of the overtime three point attempt foul call, the referees vastly favored Arizona. Arizona clawed its way back against Gonzaga in the game partially because they were very few calls against Arizona who were taking advantage on the inside particularly. This advantage could be even bigger for UCLA in the Gonzaga game and could wreak havoc on Gonzaga's rotation. Of course, UCLA will need to make more than 66% of their free throws to knock off a very good Gonzaga team.
The second advantage UCLA has is Kevon Looney. Gonzaga has no athlete that can match Looney. It should not be forgotten that Looney was a plus in the plus/minus against North Carolina in a blowout. If Looney can stay on the floor, he will make a big difference.
After those two advantages things get a bit tougher for UCLA, it gets a lot tougher.
Gonzaga's offense is impressive statistically. They rank fifth in field goal percentage, ninth in assists and tenth in points in the nation. The offense is balanced with all players averaging double digits. This is a complete team.
The Match Ups
Bryce Alford is an inch taller than Gonzaga's senior point guard Kevin Pangos and so ends our advantage in this position. Pangos has started almost every game of his career and does everything well. While he is not the greatest athlete ever, there is a reason why he is always on the Bob Cousy watch list.
Senior Gary Bell is a major three point threat UCLA will have to know where Bell is or look for him to hit a number of threes against UCLA.
USC transfer Byron Wesley starts at small forward, although he does not shoot much from three. Wesley leads Gonzaga in free throw attempts and likely knows how to work the PAC 12 refs. However, Wesley missed three free throws at the end of the Arizona game including airballing one of them. Wesley is unique on this team in that he is the one guy susceptible to pressure.
This games marks the first time this year that UCLA will play a taller team. 6'10" Kyle Witjer is Gonzaga's leading scorer and also starts at small forward. (Although he will get a lot of minutes elsewhere.) While Wintjer is a decent three shooter, he can score in a multitude of ways. How UCLA deals with this matchup will be interesting to watch.
7'1" Junior Pole Przemek Karnowski starts at Center. Karnowski is not the greatest athlete but he is big and knows how to use his body. While everyone agrees Tony Parker is playing better this year, it will be interesting to see how Parker does against a bigger player whom he has an athletic advantage on.
Unlike UCLA, Gonzaga has a legitimate sixth man who brings another option to the team. 6'10" Domantas Sabonis is a skilled Lithuanian who is shooting 75% from the floor and averaging over 11 points a game. Sabonis is a force inside and is another nightmare matchup. He does have one flaw that will be relevant for this game. He can pick up fouls in a hurry. UCLA will need to get him in foul trouble and limit his time on the floor.
UCLA is 11th in the nation in rebounding but Gonzaga is not far behind at 36th and is outrebounding their opponent by over twelve a game. (Gonzaga out rebounded Arizona.) UCLA must win the Boards to have a shot in this game. This is another way that getting Gonzaga in foul trouble may be a key for UCLA. Sabonis averages almost 6 rebounds a game in less than 20 minutes a game. Keeping him off the floor could really help UCLA.
There will be a number of other previews going into this game to read which can shine more light on this. But really from a UCLA perspective this will be a key test of how the Bruins will do this season. The Bruins need to deliver a good game. No one is looking for a moral victory here but an ugly loss could spell a lot of problems going forward.
[Note: This is edited from an earlier version which had a lineup mistake.]