"If it’s Gonzaga, I think that would be the end of the line for UCLA," Yahoo’s national scribe Pat Forde soothsayed during conversation about the Bruin’s next test in the NCAA Tournament.
So the bell is tolling again for UCLA and the underdogs are up off the stool and stalking center ring to trade blows with a real contender this time.
In December in Los Angeles then-no. 9 ranked Gonzaga outclassed the Bruins during an 87-74 win. UCLA scored what was at that time a season low 27 points at the half (it got worse against Kentucky) and were beat 15-2 by the Bulldog’s bench.
Coach Steve Alford told UCLABruins.com that his team flat out just wasn’t ready that month to win games against good teams.
"We watched that game film twice as a staff and we just weren’t very good," said Alford. "Our shot selection was poor, we were in a hurry offensively, the ball didn’t move, the ball got stuck a lot and we shot some tough shots."
Was that all?
"And then defensively we were very young too," he said.
But this team—in March—is different than that team—back in December—eh?
"It doesn’t meant the outcome is going to be different," said Alford. "But I think we’ll be better."
There is a silver lining for UCLA in the first round between these squads. As bad as they were, the Bruins had chipped down Gonzaga’s lead to just eight with four minutes to play. Then, Kevin Pangos daggered a three-pointer for the Zags and UCLA was vanquished. It would prove to be the Bruin's only home loss all season.
Gonzaga, now 34-2 and the outright West Coast Conference regular season and tournament champions, is maddening to match up against because of its confounding versatility.
In normal conditions you can take away one, maybe two things that your adversary does best and then force them to beat you left-handed, so to speak. But with the Bulldogs, when you take away one thing, you’re just opening the door for something else.
"A lot of teams have really struggled taking anything away," said Alford. "Teams like San Diego have slowed it down into the 50s and Gonzaga still wins by 14 or 15. Then, you want to run and they score 90 on you and beat you 90 to 80."
Gonzaga’s three senior guards, the most important position on a tournament team, are like anodized metal at this stage and very difficult to corrode. Kevin Pangos, Gary Bell Jr. and Byron Wesley are not especially big or great at anything, but they’re very good at everything and fit all of the needs the Bulldogs have in their backcourt. They can be counted on to do the right thing the right way.
Their interior line is huge with Przemek (pronounced Pittsburgh, I think) Karnowski standing sentinel like a redwood at 7-feet 1-inches and 288 pounds.
Then there’s Kyle Wiltjer, the Kentucky transfer. He is almost what the Marshmallow Man would look like if the Marshmallow Man had lap-band surgery and then mastered a jump shot to pair with a strong, wing-scorer’s handle and a deft touch. It’s quite something to watch even if it irritates for reasons you can’t quite pin down.
At 6-feet 10-inches Wiltjer can knock down Js, splash in shots off the bounce and get buckets around the rim. Of course on defense he’s a slow, lumbering liability and the Bruins will have to exploit that, not just to score but to force teammates to help and either open up other scorers or potentially get the Bulldogs into foul trouble.
Wiltjer led Gonzaga in the first game against UCLA with 24 points on 9-13 shooting. In their last NCAA Tournament game against Iowa, Wiltjer scored 24 on 10 of 12 shooting. But four Zags score in double figures every night and their super-skilled freshman forward Domantas Sabonis—son of NBA and International Basketball superstar Arvydas Sabonis—gets 9.7 per game.
"That’s a hard one and that’s why they’re so good," says the coach responsible for trying to put his team in position to stop them. "You can concentrate on the three-point line, but they’re monsters inside: 50-percent of their points are scored by their bigs. But then they score about 28 points a game behind the three-point line so it’s hard to figure out which you’re going to be able to take away—if any."
Of course the Bruins need their senior, Norman Powell, to play well at both ends. His base energy level and high-impact scoring can drive the team. His desperation to extend his career, borne of four years labor in the name the of the four letters across his chest, should spread over the team and ignite a fire.
"We’re a totally different ball team from then and now, we’ve definitely gotten better," Powell told the school's official website. "Defense has picked up from that game and we look like a totally different team in terms of offensive intensity and pace. We were throwing the ball every where, we weren’t setting good screens."
His backcourt mate Bryce Alford is wont to show up big for his teammates in crucial games. Alford, a sophomore, has been forced to eat a dose of nasty criticism he hadn't earned, and which might have damaged a weaker-minded player. He seems to have used the hate as a hardening agent and fuel to prove himself, and is becoming a great scorer in college basketball. Alford will have to be elite offensively—as he was in the first matchup when he led the team with 23 points—and have his best defensive game to check the Bulldogs backcourt.
On first blush, reserve sophomore guard Noah Allen seems like a tantalizing defensive option for the Bruins to deploy. Allen is a big, strong, athletic player but the drawback here is the strength of the opponent. UCLA not only has to guard, they have to score to keep up with Gonzaga. Allen has not found his role or his game in UCLA’s offense—not enough to be relied on to produce when a trip to the Elite Eight is at stake. It's not fair to him and I don't think he'll see much more than a few minutes on the floor.
But the difference here, without doubt, will be the Bruins two bellwether block players: Tony Parker and Kevon Looney. They both will need to be better than they were in December when Parker had five points and Looney fouled out. UCLA did mostly check Gonzaga's scorers inside, and lost a tight rebounding battle 34 to 30, but in the end the price was too steep.
If Looney’s scoring output stays the same in this second match, the Bruins are fine. He had 14 points on 6 of 10 shooting with eight rebounds and four assists. But can he crash around with that big Bulldog interior without fouling, while still rebounding and scoring? If he can, UCLA can last.
All season the team has gone as Parker’s gone. Against Alabama-Birmingham in the Round of 32 Parker was a monster, getting 28 points on 11 of 14 from the floor and pulling down 12 rebounds. The Bruins crushed the Blazers 92-75. His most critical statistic was two personal fouls. Parker has to stay on the floor, and he has to bang, rebound and score. The challenge for him will be enormous and his progress will be exposed, for good or ill.
Gonzaga—a long time ago was known as a Cinderella school that went to an Elite Eight and then two Sweet 16s consecutively from 1999-2001. They were beloved as little party crashers from the Northwest. But as the regular season dominance grew larger, the Bulldogs became an established program that built a new reputation for flaming out early in the Big Dance.
Despite qualifying for 17 consecutive NCAA Tournaments, Gonzaga has been bounced 11 times over the opening weekend. They’ve reached two Sweet 16s since 2001, once in 2009 and—fatefully–in 2006, where they bumped up against the Bruins.
That game—which UCLA won 73-71 in outlandish fashion after trailing by 17 points for most of the night, and then nine points with under three minutes to play before scoring 11 straight—has become part of Tournament Lore. It's given now to curious young eyes around the orange-hued campfires flickering on the dark plaines, and so passed down through the generations.
When final horn sounded Man of Big Hair cried rivers that carved out canyons. The mountains formed when Brown Bears bounced so high with joy and triumph they pounded down earth and formed out rocks. The confetti became the snow. And Bears scooped up Big Hair to comfort him in his loss, and threw him to sky to become a constellation that watched over Serbian, then Turkish basketball and brought them glory he missed many moons before. And that my son, is how the West was won in the year 2006.
Or something like that. I can't just repeat the story of the game again. It's all out there for you to find.
This Bruins team has earned the affection of UCLA fans because it got so badly lost in the woods early on but never stopped hacking its way out. They found a way to fail again and fail better until they became something resembling good. It is a solid group of kids, and there’s that feeling now when they jog onto the floor wearing the blue and gold that it could be their last go around. It's that urgency and nervous energy that makes the sudden death of March Madness the greatest tournament in sport.
Coach Alford told reporters they have been fun to be around from the beginning, and they aren’t looking to give up the ghost either.
"It’s been a blast," Alford said. "Nobody wants it to end."
But all of those other games and accomplishments are in the past. A new moment will arrive this Friday at big stadium in Houston, Texas. The Bruins have another contender to crush, but it’s not like they haven’t done it before.