LAS VEGAS – It’s been commonly referred to as a rematch, but that’s not accurate, especially with three Gonzaga players having moved on to the NBA since the Zags’ epic 93-90 overtime victory against UCLA in last season’s Final Four.
Call it whatever you want, but it’s fair to say Tuesday’s mega matchup between No. 1 Gonzaga and No. 2 UCLA at T-Mobile Arena is as big as it gets, by ranking, for nonconference contests in college basketball this season.
And that’s saying something since the Zags have already defeated then-No. 5 Texas and await dates with current No. 5 Duke on Friday in Las Vegas and No. 10 Alabama on Dec. 4 in Seattle. Meanwhile, second-ranked UCLA rallied past No. 4 Villanova on Nov. 12.
By late Tuesday night, there should be a clear-cut No. 1 after what’s believed to be the first AP No. 1-vs.-No. 2 contest involving two West teams, according to AP poll archives.
“Our guys are looking forward to it and hopefully we’ll be able to take some of our Zag nation and crowd with us (to Las Vegas). I know it’s tough when it’s (the week of) Thanksgiving,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “Mick (Cronin, UCLA coach) and I worked really hard on putting this together. We came to realize we need to do stuff like this because of West Coast basketball and we’ll continue to do that moving forward.
“We’ve been able to navigate our way to this game with these lofty rankings, whether they’re real or not we’ll figure that out in February, but it should make for an exciting atmosphere.”
The rematch angle probably hits home more for the Bruins, whose roster is remarkably similar to last season. UCLA returns all five starters from last year’s game, but post Cody Riley is sidelined with a knee injury.
Riley’s replacement is Rutgers transfer Myles Johnson, a 6-feet-10, 255-pound presence in the paint. The Bruins also added 6-8 wing Peyton Watson, a five-star recruit that was on Gonzaga’s recruiting radar.
UCLA’s top players remain the same as last April: guard Johnny Juzang, a breakout star in the NCAA Tournament, guard/forward Jaime Jaquez Jr. and point guard Tyger Campbell. The trio combined for 65 points against Gonzaga in the national semifinal.
Gonzaga is led by national player of the year candidate Drew Timme, who scored a team-high 25 points vs. the Bruins, and point guard Andrew Nembhard (11 points, eight assists). Junior forward Anton Watson played 10 minutes against UCLA.
The other four Zags to play in that April classic: Aaron Cook, who transferred to Georgia, and Jalen Suggs, Corey Kispert and Joel Ayayi are collecting NBA paychecks.
“After the tournament, everybody’s heard of them,” Gonzaga freshman Chet Holmgren said of UCLA’s standouts. “They’ve got scorers pretty much 1 through 4. They can all score the basketball and they’re shooting the ball great. They’re playing with a lot of confidence. They know their identity. It’s up to us to figure out how to handle it.”
UCLA wasn’t sharp in a 75-62 win over Bellarmine on Monday. The Zags roughed up Bellarmine 92-50 on Friday at the McCarthey Athletic Center.
“When you don’t approach the game with right attitude it shows up in missed layups, shots you don’t normally miss. It shows up in your defense, missed layups, missed free throws,” Cronin said. “We have to do some soul searching or we’ll be cruising for a serious hurt (against Gonzaga).”
The Bruins staggered into March Madness last season as an 11 seed and made a memorable run with five straight wins to reach the Final Four.
“To Mick’s credit they’ve used that as a springboard,” Few said. “They’re playing really confident, much like they played in the NCAA Tournament. Once they got through the Michigan State (in the First Four), they really found their identity. It’s going to be a handful.”
The scoreboard operator figures to stay busy with two potent offenses on the floor. UCLA is shooting nearly 50% from the field, including 42.4% from distance, and averages 94.8 points. Gonzaga averages 89.8 points and hits 55% of its shots.
“They’re playing faster than they have in the past. They are really pushing it up and not afraid to take throw-ahead 3s,” Few said. “Mick has done a phenomenal job with them. Even though the offense jumps off the page, you can still see that Cincinnati toughness that he’s instilled with them on the defensive end.”
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