There was a lot of discussion here and elsewhere about UCLA's chances to get into the tournament and after our Bruins kept losing the games they had to win (Arizona State, Arizona, Arizona again), it seemed like we weren't going to get in. But I think the tournament committee rightly decided that we should make it, probably based on how we played Arizona almost even in games right before selection time. And certainly there were also a lot of doubters before the SMU game and we pulled it out with a miraculous barrage of Bryce Alford 3-pointers (and a, uh, helping hand). And, again, there does not seem to be a lot of experts, non-experts, your hairdresser, etc. that think UCLA can beat Gonzaga. So do we have a chance? I think so, and not a 10-15% chance, but a real shot. That's just my opinion, doesn't really mean anything, but hopefully I can provide some information on Gonzaga and you can decide whether UCLA can beat the odds.
1. OVERVIEW OF GONZAGA
They are a very good offensive team. They are #1 in field goal percentage (52.6%) and they average a very high 121 points per 100 possessions. Their offensive efficiency numbers are off the charts. By the numbers, they are good defensively as well, holding teams to a 39.3% fg percentage (19th) and a 44.3% effective field goal percentage (14th). Their overall rebounding numbers are solid as well, ranking in 40th in defensive rebounding percentage and 80th in offensive rebounding efficiency.
So Gonzaga does not appear to have any weakness. But these numbers have to be taken with a certain grain of salt for several reasons. First, they play in a weak conference. Imagine what UCLA's numbers would look like if we played UAB every game. Secondly, Gonzaga is like a mid-major team plus--they don't have the NBA prospects of an Arizona or Kentucky or North Carolina. But they are a junior and senior-laden team. So when they are playing their non-conference schedule, where most of their tough competition comes from, they are at an advantage because other top teams tend to be less experienced and are still developing at that time of year.
It is noteworthy that UCLA is probably the second-best team they have played all year. Gonzaga lost on the road to Arizona. They beat SMU 72-56 at home, but SMU was without Markus Kennedy (clearly SMU's second-best player). They also beat Georgia and St. Johns in a tournament, and Texas Southern. And they beat a whole lot of teams in the West Coast Conference. Their numbers are great--their competition hasn't been.
How did that vaunted offense look against Arizona? They shot 39.7%. And how did they do against BYU, the second-best team in their conference? They won 87-80 on the road, shooting 49.2%; they lost to BYU at home, 73-70 and shot 43.9%. They did come back to beat BYU 91-75 and shot 53.7% in their conference tournament final, but one wonders if BYU might have been a little too tired to play tough defense at that point.
Gonzaga does on its face look to have an almost perfectly designed offense. They have a solid point guard in Kevin Pangos, who doesn't turn the ball over and shoots 45% percent on threes; Wiltjer is their leading scorer and can score low and is good at shooting threes; Byron Wesley is a slashing type-guard who can take it to the rim or take short jump shots (does not shoot the three much); Przemek Karnnowski is their huge 7'1", 290 pound center who can score on the block; and Gary Bell is their defensive stopper who can shoot the three as well. They also have Domantas Sabonis, who can come in and score down low as well. So they typically have two of their guys who can score down low and 3 guys who can hit the three. There is a lot of motion and pick-and-rolls in Gonzaga's so-called pick-and-roll continuity offense, forcing the defense to constantly make the right decision or give up a high-percentage shot.
But the question ultimately is whether we can match-up with their guys. Looney was not able to handle Wiltjer last time--has he improved enough defensively to slow him down? Will we have to double-down low to help our bigs and make sure they don't get into foul trouble, setting up threes to Bell or Pangos or drives by Wesley? Will he be able handle the pick-and roll with Pangos and Wiltjer? I think we will probably wind up doing a mix of man and zone and double and not doubling and changing where help is coming from to keep Gonzaga off-balance. If we try to do any one thing, I suspect that will not work that well.
As far as UCLA against Gonzaga's defense, Bryce had very good numbers last game. Pangos is 6'2" but he is not long at all and I think Bryce will feel comfortable shooting over him like he did with Nic Moore. Tony Parker is out-sized by Karnowski but he was pretty effective against Tarczewski on Arizona moving laterally to create angles and I think Karnoswki has a problem with guys getting around him, so we'll have to see how that works out. Presumably, Gary Bell, Jr. will be on Powell and, while Bell is the West Coast defensive player of the year, I don't think he has guarded very many (if at all) guys with the athleticism of Norman Powell. I think Hamilton will get his chances to shoot the three. Gonzaga only plays with 7 guys and only they have three (Karnowski, Wiltjer and Sabonis) who have any size so they are probably anxious that their bigs don't get into foul trouble (like us) so they may opt to double down low and crowd the paint and should leave some outside shots open.
2. Gonzaga 87 UCLA 74
Gonzaga was clearly the better team back in December. This game started us on our five-game tailspin which was a factor in the collective shock out there at the thought UCLA would make it into the tournament. Wiltjer shot 9 for 13 and scored 24 points, Byron Wesley added 20 (on 7-8 shooting), as Gonzaga shot 58.5% as team and easily won. Bryce Alford was the bright spot for the Bruins scoring 23 points and making 7 out of 14 shots (5-10 from 3-point range).
In their first game, they struggled against a #15 seed, North Dakota State. North Dakota State stayed close for much of the game and Gonzaga only wound up winning, 86-76. But Gonzaga routed Iowa, shooting 61.5% against a team that had been holding the opposition to 39%. And Iowa is not a bad team--they beat North Carolina early in the season and they beat Davidson (a sleeper pick) by 30 in the previous round.
4. Gonzaga's Players
a. Kyle Wiltjer, 17.1 points, 6.1 rebounds, 67-140 3s (47.9%)
b. Kevin Pagos, 11.8 points, 4.9 assists, 1.3 turnovers, 80-178 threes (45%)
c. Przemek Karnowskii, 10.9 points, 5.7 rebounds
d. Byron Wesley, 10.5 points, 4.7 rebounds
e. Domantas Sabonis, 9.7 points, 7.1 rebounds
f. Gary Bell, Jr., 8.4 points, 55 for 146 3s (37.7%)
g. Kyle Dranginis, 4.1 points, 2.5 rebounds
When I think of the teams we could be playing--Duke, Kentucky, Arizona, Wisconsin, etc--Gonzaga is not a bad draw for us at this point. I think we have a shot. Weigh in with your opinions on our chances in the comments section below.