HOUSTON – So many factors in Gonzaga’s Sweet 16 date today with UCLA.
A rematch from a December game at Pauley Pavilion, won by Gonzaga 87-74. How much better are the Bruins, who surprised many when they received an at-large berth on Selection Sunday? How much better are the Zags?
Massive NRG Stadium, with its raised court, rows of seats that stretch forever and huge black curtains hanging far beyond the baselines. How will the shooting backdrop impact shooting percentages?
What adjustments will UCLA make defending Kyle Wiltjer (24 points) and Byron Wesley (20) from the first go-around? Second-seeded Gonzaga (34-2), a solid favorite over No. 11 UCLA (22-13) and its four McDonald’s All-Americans.
Gonzaga’s Kevin Pangos absorbed virtually every question imaginable and kept offering thoughtful answers before he boiled it all down.
“That’s cool,” said Pangos, when asked about being favored over a Bruins’ program with 11 national championships and 47 tournament appearances. “But that’s just a name. It’s a good matchup if we make it a good matchup. I don’t even think it’s the matchup, it’s whoever plays the hardest. They have talented scorers but we do as well. It comes down to whoever plays the hardest.”
The senior guard feels his team has that covered, but he knows the Zags must solve an opponent featuring the same personnel from the December meeting that is playing much better basketball.
Guard Bryce Alford is on a shooting roll (nine 3-pointers vs. SMU in the opening round) and scoring roll (24.5-point average in two tourney wins). Forward Tony Parker, a nonfactor in the first meeting, is coming off a career-high 28 points. Senior guard Norman Powell, who was 3-of-11 shooting against GU, is averaging 17 points in the NCAAs.
“I remember how good they were on offense. They picked us apart,” said forward Kevon Looney, who has 15 double-doubles this season. “I feel we’re much better. We have a lot more experience under our belt, we’re much more prepared.”
The Bruins managed an 11 seed and avoided a play-in game in Dayton. They beat SMU on a controversial goaltending call on Alford’s off-target 3-pointer in the closing seconds and then routed UAB, an opponent they throttled at the Battle 4 Atlantis in late November.
“Two weeks ago it was, ‘You didn’t deserve it, you didn’t deserve it,’ ” head coach Steve Alford said. “Now it’s a love-fest. It changes and so that noise, whether it’s positive or negative, can really affect you as an athlete. You’ve got to really stay in the moment and keep moving forward.”
All five UCLA starters average in double figures. The bench is limited but it has contributed more as the season progressed. UCLA reserves scored two points in the December game.
“You can put that starting five against anybody in the country, except probably Kentucky,” Zags coach Mark Few said. “That’s a big-time talented group that’s going to play for a lot of money when they’re done at UCLA.”
Both teams are well-versed with rematches from their round-robin conference schedules.
“It’s a new 40 minutes,” Zags center Przemek Karnowski said.
Added assistant coach Tommy Lloyd: “The previous game doesn’t indicate how the next one goes. They’re standing between us and where we want to go.”
That would be the Elite Eight, which hasn’t happened since GU barged onto the national scene in 1999.
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