Keys to the Game: Gonzaga vs. UCLA


Someone please tell me I wasn’t the only one who was petrified after watching the Iowa Hawkeyes dismantle the Davidson Wildcats. As I sat court side in the Key Arena, my heart and mind began to race.

“How can we stop Aaron White? Can we handle a team that can match our size? HOW CAN WE STOP AARON WHITE?!?”

And yet, here we are. Gonzaga handled Iowa’s tremendous momentum in the round-of-32 with a 87-68 victory over the Hawkeyes, and I’m currently sitting in a fancy hotel in downtown Houston, anxiously waiting for the Sweet 16 to begin.

The Gonzaga Bulldogs are prepping for a colossal matchup against the UCLA Bruins on Friday. The winner of this game advances to the Elite Eight, and the Zags are hungry for a revenge match from the 2006 “Game That Shall Not Be Named.” The Bulldogs handed the Bruins a staggering home court loss back in December, causing a handful of Zag fans to look past this Sweet 16 matchup and onto the Elite Eight.

But it’s that exact attitude that we must avoid heading into Friday’s game. This is a completely different UCLA team than we faced back in mid-December, and they cannot be overlooked. Here are some keys Gonzaga will need to focus in on if they want to head back to the Elite Eight:

1. Stop Tony Parker: The Zags did a phenomenal job of limiting UCLA’s star forward during the regular season. Parker scored only five points against the Bulldogs, thanks in large part to the monstrous size and athleticism of Gonzaga’s frontcourt. However, Parker has single-handedly turned this season around for the Bruins. As noted in an article by the Slipper Still Fits, Parker has increased his shot attempts on the floor, averaging 11 attempts per game. As a result, he is connecting on 6.5 of those attempts, giving him a 62.2 shooting percentage from inside the arc. He’s now averaging 17 points per game, as opposed to a previous 9.5 PPG. In other words, the Zags need to play relentless defense on Parker throughout the entire matchup. Expect to see Domantas Sabonis stay on him like a hawk.

2. Defend Bryce Alford: The son of the Bruins’ head coach has really stepped up his game as of late as well. The UCLA guard shot a jaw-dropping 9-11 from the three point line against SMU in the second round of the tournament, and his effective field goal percentage has been off the charts.

However, Alford doesn’t worry me quite so much, thanks solely to our spectacular defense from the likes of Eric McClellan and (especially) Gary Bell Jr. These two are going to need to practically be glued to Alford whenever UCLA is on offense. We’ve seen what Bell Jr. is capable of when he guards the likes of Tyler Haws and co. to a tee. However, all of this being said, Alford is fully capable of going on a three-point tangent at any given moment – the Zags need to ensure he doesn’t get hot from behind the arc.

3. Look Out for Byron Wesley: I’m calling it right now. Byron is going to go off for a huge game in the Sweet 16. Wesley went 7-8 from the field against UCLA back in December, notching 20 points in an arena he hadn’t won in during his time at USC.

More from 2015 NCAA Tournament

The main reason Wesley transferred to Gonzaga in the first place was the chance to go to the NCAA Tournament. Now, he’s in the second weekend of the tourney going up against a team that I’m sure he loves destroying more than anyone. He’s going to be pumped, inspired, energized, and hungry for that Elite Eight birth, and there’s no better team to get his momentum going than the UCLA Bruins.

This is quite a favorable matchup for the Zags. UCLA is being regarded as the weakest team in the Sweet 16, and Gonzaga has a good shot at repeating their impressive victory from back in December, especially with how well they’ve played in the tournament so far.

But please, I beg of you, with all my heart, DO NOT OVERLOOK THE BRUINS. More so, don’t overlook any team that has made it this far into the tournament. Yes, the Bulldogs defeated UCLA earlier in the year and the odds are on their side. But this is March. Anything can happen, and the worst thing we can do is overlook this (or any) matchup.

The game starts at 7:15 pm ET on CBS. Let’s get excited, people. Go Zags!