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Gonzaga Basketball

NCAA Tournament: Best bets for the Sweet 16 and a breakdown of the UCLA-Gonzaga showdown

 (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
By Jon Wilner Bay Area News Group

Two years ago, Gonzaga and UCLA produced one of the greatest games in NCAA Tournament history, a master class in shotmaking that ended, in overtime, on a 40-foot buzzer beater by Gonzaga guard Jalen Suggs.

The teams met again early the following season on a neutral court, but it wasn’t close: The Zags carved up UCLA’s defense in a 20-point victory.

UCLA’s prospects for victory in Round 3 – a Sweet 16 duel Thursday night in Las Vegas – depend entirely on a trio of big men who played no role whatsoever in either of the previous meetings.

Adem Bona, Kenneth Nwuba and Mac Etienne must contain Drew Timme, or recent history will repeat.

Their modus hackerandi?

They have 15 fouls to give against the ultra-skilled senior, whose 28 points fueled Gonzaga past TCU in the second round.

We suspect Bona, Nwuba and Etienne will be instructed to use each foul without hesitation or regret. After all, Timme shoots only 63.7% from the line.

Put another way:

• If they allow Timme to attempt a shot, he has a 62.1% chance of scoring two points (based on his season-long field goal percentage).

• If they foul him in the act of shooting, the likelihood of Timme walking away from the line with two points on the scoreboard plunges to just 40%.

That difference, however slight over the course of 40 minutes, could be decisive.

There is more to the game-within-the-game, of course.

The Bruins’ perimeter defenders must close off passing lanes to limit Timme’s possessions in the low block, while the trio of big men must hoard their fouls.

They cannot get caught charging, committing over-the-back violations or setting illegal screens.

More generally, the Bruins must avoid lengthy scoreless stretches in the final 10 minutes or relying too heavily on midrange jump shots. (In that regard, freshman playmaker Amari Bailey will be vital.)

And on Gonzaga’s side, Timme requires some level of perimeter support from Julian Strawther, Rasir Bolton and Malachi Smith.

But in a showdown that should unfold on the margins – with a play here or there eventually making all the difference – UCLA’s use of those 15 fouls against Timme could tip the advantage.

To the best bets …

Lines taken from Vegas Insider.

For entertainment purposes only.

Arkansas (+3.5) vs. UConn (Thursday in Las Vegas): The Razorbacks are vastly more talented than a No. 8 seed and will have plenty of length to throw at UConn big man Adama Sanogo. Arkansas also owns a decisive edge in experience, having reached the Elite Eight each of the past two seasons. (UConn has not been alive on the second weekend in a decade.) If the Razorbacks shoot well, which is hardly a given, this won’t be close in the final minute. Pick: Arkansas

Kansas State (+1.5) vs. Michigan State (Thursday in New York): Both teams were impressive in the second round, with the Spartans defeating No. 2 seed Marquette and the Wildcats eliminating No. 6 Kentucky. We see evenly matched teams – neither is stocked with NBA talent – and in that situation default to the coaching mismatch: Hall of Famer Tom Izzo vs. Kansas State’s Jerome Tang, who’s in his first year running a college program. Pick: Michigan State

Gonzaga (+2.5) vs. UCLA (Thursday in Las Vegas): A delicious collision of strengths: The Zags are No. 1 in the nation in adjusted offensive efficiency, which measures points per possession (at kenpom.com). Meanwhile, the Bruins are No. 2 nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency. All of which means it will come down to UCLA’s offense against Gonzaga’s defense, because that’s how March Madness rolls. Pick: UCLA

San Diego State (+7.5) vs. Alabama (Friday in Louisville): A breakthrough March for the Aztecs at the ideal time for their future conference affiliation will come to an end – an abrupt end – against the tournament favorite. SDSU doesn’t have enough of anything, especially offense, to match the loaded Crimson Tide roster over 40 minutes. And if Tide star Brandon Miller finds his touch, it could get out of hand early. Pick: Alabama