INDIANAPOLIS – Gonzaga is right where so many expected it would be, maybe not with a zero attached to its loss column, but in the Final Four and the favorite.
Coach Mark Few certainly wasn’t anticipating an unbeaten run back in November.
“I would have laughed,” Few said of the possibility. “Absolutely laughed.”
UCLA is exactly where few outside of its locker room would have believed possible. The Bruins dropped their last four games of the regular season and barely landed an at-large berth as a No. 11 seed.
They’ve reeled off five wins, including victories over East Region No. 1 seed Michigan and No. 2 Alabama, to became the second team to win in the First Four and reach the Final Four, joining fellow No. 11 seed VCU in 2011.
As has often been the case this season, top-seeded Gonzaga (30-0) faces another clash of styles, pitting its high-powered offense against the methodical, defensive-minded Bruins (22-9). Tipoff is at 5:34 p.m. at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Baylor faces Houston at 2:14 p.m. with a spot in Monday’s championship game on the line.
“Obviously, we know what we’re doing is special and hasn’t happened a lot, but no one is going to give us anything,” Zags sophomore forward Drew Timme said. “No other team cares about the history. We believe we have to take it and earn it. We haven’t earned it yet.”
Few did seek advice from Kentucky coach John Calipari, whose Wildcats made the last deep run at an unbeaten season before his 38-0 Wildcats lost to Wisconsin in the Final Four.
Few is more concerned about UCLA, which has been on a roll in the tournament with its tough-minded approach, stout defense and timely scoring, often generated by guards/wings Johnny Juzang and Jaime Jaquez Jr.
Juzang, a transfer from Kentucky, scored 28 points in a 51-49 upset over Michigan. Jaquez scored 27 against Michigan State in the First Four.
“We know we’re in for a real rock fight of a game and a battle,” Few said. “They’ve absolutely taken on (head coach) Mick Cronin’s persona. His teams are always so tough, so disciplined and so hard to score on.”
Cronin has worries of his own, beginning with GU freshman point guard Jalen Suggs.
“When I really zeroed in on him in film, I just remembered as an assistant coach in 2001 at Louisville we played Marquette,” Cronin said. “There was a guy named Dwyane Wade, and just his explosive, athletic nature with that size. I hadn’t seen that and I don’t know if I’ve seen that since. (Suggs) is extremely impressive. So stopping the ball when he has it is a lot easier said than done.”
Cronin extended that concern to GU’s transition game and the entire offense.
“It’s nothing different than we always do, but obviously it’s going to be a lot harder due to their personnel,” he said. “You have to take care of the ball, execute and get the ball in the basket. That’s always the key to transition defense because they’ll kill you in transition.”
Cronin was asked if he would show his team video of UCLA’s 2006 Sweet 16 comeback win that left Adam Morrison sobbing on the court in his last game as a Zag.
“Probably not,” Cronin said. “I’m not a big false motivation guy. It’s not going to help you when you’re guarding Corey Kispert and you’d better make sure he doesn’t get his feet set and shoot it in your face.”
Cronin has dealt with losing Daishen Nix, who decommitted to sign for a reported $300,000 in the NBA G League’s pro pathway program, a season-ending knee injury in December to top returning player Chris Smith and backup post Jalen Hill’s exit for personal reasons.
“We’ve had different guys step up,” Cronin said. “I would think our experience of playing in so many tough games has helped us.
“If that’s the case, I don’t think it’s going to hurt Gonzaga at all. Mark is too good of a coach for that.”
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