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Sports >  Gonzaga basketball

History lesson: Gonzaga-UCLA will be first 1 vs. 2 battle of West teams

Nov. 20, 2021 Updated Sat., Nov. 20, 2021 at 7:29 p.m.

Gonzaga and UCLA will add a unique twist to the 42-game history of No. 1 versus No. 2 in the AP college basketball poll dating to 1949.

It will be the first time a 1-2 showdown involves two teams from the West when the Zags and Bruins tangle Tuesday at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. No. 1 UNLV, which edged No. 2 Arkansas 112-105 in a 1991 shootout, was the last western team involved in a top-two matchup.

It took quite a bit of work and a fortunate bounce or two in terms of scheduling for Gonzaga and UCLA to reach this point.

Above all, it took a pair of coaches who wanted to make it happen, not that they necessarily knew it would end up being No. 1 vs. No. 2.

“It’s important for everybody to play (these type of games),” Gonzaga’s Mark Few said. “If you want to play in the NCAA Tournament, accrue a high seed, you have to play really good teams. It’s important for college basketball. We’ve always tried to set an example.”

The last meeting between the Zags and Bruins was an instant classic as Jalen Suggs nailed a 40-footer at the buzzer in Gonzaga’s 93-90 overtime win at the Final Four last April.

Few and UCLA coach Mick Cronin’s attempts at scheduling a rematch hit a few detours before coming to fruition.

“Mark and I, fortunately through a turn of events with our (separate) multiteam events, both of us were going to be in New York, (but) it didn’t go as the contract was stated,” Cronin said. “There were months of work to make this happen.

“When you coach at a school like UCLA, I think you have to play games that your players want, your fans want and recruits want to see: ‘Hey, we’re going to be in these types of games.’ ”

That reasoning resonates with Gonzaga freshman Chet Holmgren, the top-ranked recruit in the 2021 class.

“Very excited,” Holmgren said of GU’s upcoming games in Las Vegas, including Friday’s date with Duke. “We want to test what we’re made of. This is what the last three or four months since we got here has been about. This is going to be a great test for us.”

Gonzaga has never played in a 1-2 matchup. It was scheduled to do so last season, but COVID-19 issues sidelined the top-ranked Zags vs. No. 2 Baylor in Indianapolis last December.

The matchup finally occurred in the national championship with No. 3 Baylor downing No. 1 Gonzaga 86-70. Illinois was No. 2 in the final AP poll, released prior to the NCAA Tournament.

Gonzaga assistant coach Roger Powell played in the last No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup that decided a national championship. Powell was a standout forward for No. 1 Illinois, which won its first 29 games and finished 37-2 after falling to No. 2 North Carolina 75-70 in the 2005 title game.

Powell had nine points and a game-high 14 rebounds. Luther Head scored 21 points and Deron Williams added 17, but Head’s potential game-tying 3 with 17 seconds left bounced off the rim.

UNC’s Sean May made 10 of 11 shots and poured in 26 points. Raymond Felton, who added 17 points and seven assists, made three late free throws.

“First of all, I remember (teammate) James Augustine played about 10 minutes and fouled out,” Powell said. “I remember having to guard Sean May in the second half because we had foul trouble. I did a decent job on him.

“I remember the excitement and focus of the moment. We weren’t too high, too low. This was the next step and we had a job to do – let’s go win a national championship. It was (a bitter loss), you want to win every game, but that’s only been done a few times. Just taking a step back, especially now and just realizing the greatness I’ve been part of then as a player and now as a coach. I’ve been part of some great teams and on coaching staffs with great teams.”

Tuesday will be old hat for the Bruins, who join Kentucky with the most 1-vs.-2 appearances (nine). UCLA is 5-4, but all nine were between the 1965 and 1976 seasons. The Bruins won 10 national titles from 1964-75.

Utah (1955), Cal (1960) and UNLV (1991) are the only other West representatives.

The Gonzaga-UCLA contest could lose some luster before Tuesday’s tipoff in Las Vegas, but it would require a major upset. The Zags face Central Michigan, No. 307 in KenPom’s ratings, on Monday, after UCLA tangles with Bellarmine, which lost by 42 points to Gonzaga on Friday.

Even if there is an upset, it wouldn’t change Gonzaga’s or UCLA’s ranking. The next AP poll will be released Monday morning. No. 1 Gonzaga has a 67-point cushion over No. 2 UCLA, which is 50 points clear of No. 3 Kansas.

Facts and figures from the first 42 1-vs.-2 clashes:

No. 1s hold a slight edge, 22-20. It’s been a different story in the 12 games since top-ranked UNLV’s win in 1991. Second-ranked teams are 8-4 in that span, with Duke supplying three of the No. 1s victories.

Average score: 75-75. While No. 1 holds a slight edge in wins and losses, No. 2 has a one-point edge in the 42 games.

Five games have been decided in overtime, including two that went three overtimes. North Carolina held off Kansas 54-53 for the 1957 national title. In 2016, No. 1 Kansas edged Oklahoma 109-106, despite the Sooners’ Buddy Hield’s eight 3-pointers and 46 points.

Others settled in overtime: No. 1 North Carolina over Georgia Tech 78-77 in 1986; No. 1 North Carolina State over UCLA 80-77 in double OT in the 1974 NCAA semifinals; and No. 2 Cincinnati’s 70-65 win over Ohio State in the 1961 NCAA championship.

Duke’s 97-66 rout over Texas in the 2006 season was the largest margin of victory for a No. 1.

Kentucky’s 81-40 blowout over St. John’s in the 1952 season was the most lopsided win for a No. 2.

Seven national championships pitted No. 1 vs. No. 2. UCLA won twice, as the top-ranked team over Kentucky in 1975 and as a No. 2 vs. Michigan in 1965. Second-ranked Cincinnati won back-to-back over Ohio State in 1961 and 1962.

In addition to No. 2 North Carolina’s 2005 win over Illinois, the top-ranked Tar Heels outlasted Kansas 54-53 in 1957. No. 1 Kentucky defeated No. 2 Oklahoma State 46-36 to win the 1949 championship.

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