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Gonzaga Basketball

In preparation for Round of 64 game against BYU, UCLA & Mick Cronin got early glimpse of Gonzaga

Gonzaga’s Corey Kispert blocks a passing lane against BYU’s Alex Barcello during the second half of the West Coast Conference Tournament championship March 9 at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas.  (Associated Press)

INDIANAPOLIS – Mick Cronin was preparing for UCLA’s Round of 64 matchup against BYU when he inadvertently got a brief look at the team the Bruins would be playing four games later in the NCAA Tournament.

Now, in order to prepare for Saturday’s Final Four test against top-seeded Gonzaga, Cronin and the Bruins happen to be spending more time skimming through film of BYU.

If the Bruins are trying to find clues on how to beat the Bulldogs, there won’t be much material available to them. Nobody’s solved that equation yet, but BYU’s meeting with Gonzaga on March 9 at the West Coast Conference Tournament may still be the best place to start.

For the Bruins to knock off the unbeaten Zags, it’ll probably require a quick start. BYU did that in Las Vegas, claiming a 9-5 lead after almost 5 minutes and extending that to 53-41 at halftime.

If UCLA hopes to keep pace with Gonzaga’s high-octane offense, the Bruins’ 3-point shooters will have to be clicking. The Cougars had that going for them, too – at least in the first half when they connected on 9 of 13 shots from beyond the arc.

Finally, among other things, Cronin’s team will have to protect the ball, limiting the additional Gonzaga possessions that usually allow the Bulldogs to build 10-, 20- and 30-point leads. In the WCC title game, the Zags didn’t necessarily struggle to put the ball in the hoop, but BYU’s eight turnovers gave way to just seven GU points.

“Obviously, I had to watch the game to scout BYU, I had to watch it again to scout Gonzaga,” said Cronin, UCLA’s third-year coach. “But we don’t have BYU’s personnel, so when you look at stuff like that, it’s not always apples to apples in preparation. Because we don’t have a 7-foot-3. So we don’t have strategically the same thing.”

Matt Haarms, the 7-footer Cronin referred to, had 13 points, four rebounds and a block in the WCC championship. The Zags just squared off with USC and 7-foot center Evan Mobley, who scored 17 points in GU’s 85-66 win in the Elite Eight. The Bruins are much smaller across the board, often playing without a true center and rather leaning on three 6-9 forwards: Cody Riley, Mac Etienne and Kenneth Nwuba.

Still, BYU’s blueprint from the WCC championship isn’t a bad one to follow. The Cougars went cold from distance in the second half and the Bulldogs, behind the timely 3-point shooting of Corey Kispert and Jalen Suggs, erased a 12-point deficit to win 88-78. The 10-point win was GU’s smallest margin of victory since an 87-82 victory over West Virginia – the only time the Bulldogs failed to win by double figures this season.

“What I can tell you is, what BYU did was they got off to a good start and they scored,” Cronin said. “They executed in the halfcourt and they gave themselves a good chance to set their defense. So, obviously we can’t start running BYU’s offense, but they did execute, they did take care of the ball, got the ball in the basket.

“I’m sure that got their confidence up and it gave them a chance.”

It may be the only thing an opponent can ask for when squaring off with the top-ranked Zags, who’ve won NCAA Tournament games by an average margin of 24 points.

“You’ve got to take care of the ball, you’ve got to execute, you’ve got to get the ball in the basket,” Cronin said. “That’s always the key to transition defense, because they’ll kill you in transition. We don’t like giving up baskets in transition, no matter who we play. It’s going to be a lot harder against Gonzaga.”