“The slipper still fits,” probably isn’t a phrase that applies to Gonzaga men’s basketball’s journey to the Final Four this year. However, that slipper may fit better on the feet of GU’s opponent Saturday, the UCLA Bruins.
UCLA as a program has won the most national titles in NCAA history with 11 and also has the most undefeated regular seasons with four, a majority of those prolific accolades coming during the John Wooden era from 1948-1975. So the Bruins wouldn’t seem privy to ever being proclaimed a “Cinderella” team, but after a tumultuous 2020-21 season saw them barely squeeze into the NCAA tournament as a First Four team, many counted the team out from even making it to the round of 64.
Yet, since beating Michigan State in overtime to advance into the the first round, The Bruins have been riding their newly found momentum past teams like Alabama and Michigan all the way to the Final Four, and are set to match up against another tournament giant in GU on Saturday.
The oddity of this year’s Bruin’s squad makes them a tough team to decipher, especially given that many weren’t sure if the Bruins were worth putting much stock into until their recent run. But, the Gonzaga Bulletin has gone behind enemy lines over the past couple of days to speak with member of the Daily Bruin's senior staff and former sports editor for the publication, UCLA senior Sam Connon - who’s in Indianapolis covering the tournament - about the ins and outs of this Bruins team and how it will match up against GU Saturday.
GB: UCLA has been through it’s ups and down this season, definitely towards the end when the team lost four straight heading into the tournament. But now they’ve gone from First Four to Final Four, so what’s it been like covering that journey and how does Westwood feel about this team?
DB: “I went out to the PAC-12 tournament to Vegas and saw them blow that game to Oregon State. And at that moment, I'm thinking this team just based off the resume will probably get in the tournament, but they aren't going to do anything when they get there; it'll just be a one and done. This team clearly lost too much. I didn't expect anything out of it.
So I didn't even fly out to Indianapolis for the First Four, round 64 or round 32. But I came out here to cover them once it was the Sweet Sixteen because it’s important. Some people thought they would lose to Alabama, but they didn't lose the Bama and then they didn't lose to Michigan.
It's weird how everyone went from believing in this team early in the season and midway through the season, to completely jumping off the bandwagon by the end just because all those collapses against Oregon, USC, Oregon State, Colorado and then now everyone's back on board,”
GB: Was there an adjustment that the team made going into the tournament or did a few players step up big for them that helped generate this Final Four run?
DB: “It's been the defense. It's weird because their best defensive player Jalen Hill has been out with personal reasons. Chris Smith is a guy who can guard one through five and he tore his ACL in December. It's the way that Cronin is coaching them with how they're rotating, switching, guarding the posts and using all their fouls on the other team’s big men.
They have experienced playing seven footers now that they played one with BYU, with Abilene Christian and with Michigan. Taking on all these seven footers and limiting them, I think to 11 points, eight points, 11 points and one offensive rebound each, and they’re all leading their team in scoring.
I know Gonzaga doesn't have a true long 7-footer like that. Timme is 6’10” and a little bit more dynamic when it comes to being a playmaker. But, the way they've been able to handle size while not having a ton of bodies in the post has been impressive, and I think that's the core of how [UCLA’s] defense has improved in these past few games.”
GB: On offense this tournament, UCLA has been able to put up a good scoring offense this tournament that averages 73 points a night, but UCLA has also shot at a lower field goal percentage in each game than they’re respective opponent. How do you see they’re offense keeping up with a very fast paced GU offense?
DB: “UCLA can have a good offensive game, but they can't really win in a track meet since they usually play one of the slower paces in the country. They're in the three hundreds when you look at KenPom for adjusted tempo, and that's how they like to play. When you look at how they transition whenever they get the defensive rebound, whoever grabs will it will stand there for two seconds waiting for Tyger Campbell to come back before he walks the ball up the court.
It all goes back to how [UCLA] beat Abilene Christian, which is don't turn the ball over. Because when GU gets out in transition, there's really no stopping them. So UCLA has to hold possession, use the shot clock like they like to do, run sets and read sets for Johnny Juzang or anybody else and really run the offense that they want to.”
GB: Which players are going to have to put the work in for that to happen for the Bruins?
DB: “Obviously, Juzang because they're gonna need to put some points on the board and he can do that. But, I think this game could be big for Jaime Jacquez as he didn't really have a great game against Michigan. He was averaging 17 points in the tournament going into that game, so he's definitely important.
He can play in the post. He's a pretty good passer for an in-between guy like him. They're gonna need him to work well with the wings and guards around him. That's how I think UCLA maybe has a chance to pull this off.”
GB: Going to see this game live in-person to cover it, what are you most excited to see and what about getting to see GU play in particular are you looking forward to witnessing?
DB: “I feel like this game either goes one of two ways. Either UCLA pulls off a crazy upset and I can say that I was there for the iconic upset of the undefeated GU in the Final Four. Or, GU wins and I get to the point where I can tell my kids that I saw that GU team, the undefeated one. The one that had Drew Timme and Corey Kispert, who go down as all-time college players, and Jalen Suggs who went on to be a great NBA player.
So it's fun seeing a Gonzaga team that's so prolific and so highly regarded, and has the type of guys who are college legends, and also guys who are future NBA guys.”