There was no sweating for the Gonzaga Bulldogs on Selection Sunday, aside from the moderately consequential matter of which low-seeded underdog they would face in the first round.
All the while, the UCLA Bruins wondered if they’d be included in the field at all. Their dearth of quality victories led most pundits to project the Bruins on the wrong side of the NCAA tournament bubble. So when they were announced as a No. 11 seed in the South region — on the same half of that bracket as Gonzaga, which was chosen as the region’s No. 2 seed — it came as a surprise to seemingly everyone.
“When Selection Sunday happened, I thought they had no shot of getting in,” said senior guard Byron Wesley, who played the first three seasons of his career at USC. “But they are UCLA, and their name is so big that I feel like they’re always going to get a shot, and they showed why they should be in the tournament.”
Well, sort of. The Bruins (22-13) are indeed still playing, and will play against Gonzaga (34-2) at 4:15 p.m. Friday in the South regional semifinal at NRG Stadium in Houston. It will be the second meeting between the Bulldogs and Bruins this season, with the first matchup going to Gonzaga in an 87-74 decision Dec. 13 at Pauley Pavilion.
But UCLA’s surprise trip to this Sweet 16 was forged through fortune as much as fortitude. The Bruins drew a favorable matchup against 6th-seeded SMU in the first round, and advanced with a close victory only after a controversial goaltending call gave them a late lead. And they were handed another gift in the form of a second-round game against 14th-seeded UAB — which upset 3rd-seeded Iowa State — a game the Bruins won easily to secure Friday’s date with Gonzaga.
All of which has done little to quiet those still incredulous over UCLA’s inclusion in the tournament.
“There’s been a lot of made of that,” Bruins coach Steve Alford said Thursday in Houston. “I wish there was more made of what our young men have been able to do and grow up and mature and become the team that they are, because that’s the real story.”
The real story is that UCLA still has plenty to prove. But the Bruins surely have Gonzaga’s attention, even if the Bulldogs already steamrolled them once this year.
“Probably more so than anything — which is the most important thing in any sporting event — is they’re playing with a high level of confidence right now,” GU coach Mark Few said during a Thursday press conference in Houston. “They’re on a roll. They played well in the conference tournament, played Arizona tough and got two wins and put them in the Sweet 16. They’re a hot team and feeling good about themselves.”
Gonzaga fits that description, too. The Bulldogs followed a good-enough victory over 15th-seeded North Dakota State with a far more impressive 87-68 pasting of seventh-seeded Iowa, racing past the Hawkeyes last week at KeyArena with a field-goal percentage of 61.5.
Junior forward Kyle Wiltjer led Gonzaga in scoring in each of those games, with 23 and 24 points, respectively. The 6-foot-10 Kentucky transfer has made 6 of 9 3-pointers in this tournament, and he scored 24 points against UCLA back in December.
Gonzaga, which is facing UCLA for just the fourth time in school history — and the second time in the NCAA tournament — is an 8.5-point favorite to advance to its first Elite Eight since 1999.
The matchup recalls memories of 2006, when No. 2 UCLA met No. 3 Gonzaga in the Sweet 16 and played to one of the more painful results in GU hoops history. The Bulldogs, led by the nation’s leading scorer, Adam Morrison, held a nine-point lead with a little more than three minutes to play before a shocking collapse resulted in a 73-71 UCLA victory. The postgame image of a tearful, inconsolable Morrison remains one of the most enduring from that year’s tournament.
So perhaps some measure of revenge is on the line, too, even if Gonzaga is the decided favorite this time.
“We know we’ve got a very, very tough matchup,” Alford said. “This is a very good basketball team. You’re about maybe two possessions away in the BYU game and one possession away in the game at Arizona to where you’d be looking at them as being undefeated, just like Kentucky. That’s how good this team is.”