The UCLA Bruins are aware that most everyone has the undefeated Gonzaga Bulldogs winning it all next Monday in the 2021 NCAA championship game, in what would be a perfect coronation for Mark Few’s good men.
And it’s certainly possible. The Zags have looked unstoppable for most — if not all — of the season, and are two wins away from joining 1975-76 Indiana, four UCLA teams (1963-64, 1966-67, 1971-72, 1972-73), 1956-57 North Carolina and 1955-56 San Francisco as the only squads to stay unbeaten all the way to a title.
UCLA fans know that no one has had an answer for Drew Timme, Corey Kispert, Jalen Suggs and Joel Ajayi, who at different times this season have been individually dominant, and collectively a nightmare.
But Gonzaga’s next opponent — the 11-seeded UCLA Bruins — are the one’s wearing Cinderella’s slipper in “The Big Dance.” It’s an odd statement to make about an historic program deeply rooted in a Power 5 conference, but this year, it’s just true. Second-year coach Mick Cronin, who’s had prior success at Murray State and Cincinnati, has his team playing some of the best basketball in the nation.
And it’s a big reason why UCLA has the power to pulverize all expectations on the way to an unlikely title.
So, how can UCLA do it?
How can UCLA shock the nation?
UCLA keys: 1) Johnny Juzang
No one in the 2021 NCAA Tournament has been as hot or effective as UCLA sophomore guard Johnny Juzang. The 6-foot-6, 210-pound wing and former Kentucky Wildcats frosh has flame-thrown himself and the Bruins all the way from the First Four to the Final Four — joining only Virginia Commonwealth in 2011 as the only teams to accomplish such a feat.
At 108 points and counting, Juzang of UCLA leads the entire tournament field in total scoring, and is the highest ppg. scorer remaining of the final teams in Gonzaga, Houston and Baylor.
Only Timme, of Gonzaga, is close in total production.
|1||Johnny Juzang, G||UCLA||5||35.0||21.6||8.4-17.6||.477||2.4-6.8||.353||2.4-2.8||.857|
|2||Drew Timme, F||GONZ||4||28.8||21.3||8.0-13.0||.615||0.0-0.5||.000||5.3-6.3||.840|
Much akin to UConn’s Kemba “Cardiac” Walker and Shabazz Napier, Juzang absolutely qualifies as a strong isolation scorer capable of carrying UCLA to a coveted NCAA crown. His 18 first-half points against No. 1 seed Michigan in the Elite Eight had the Bruins up 27-23, and his 10 second-half points on a bum ankle sealed the deal.
Of all players in UCLA history, only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has scored more in the tournament than Juzang, and his work over these last five games — according to NBA analyst Kenny Smith, in an interview with TMZ — could make the special wing a lot of cash sooner rather than later.
Kenny Smith Says UCLA Star Johnny Juzang Now A 1st-Rounder After Epic Tourney Run https://t.co/5k2YTy9XZZ
— TMZ (@TMZ) April 1, 2021
Juzang scored in single digits only seven times this season for UCLA, and hasn’t done so since a March 3 loss to Oregon. This has been his month, and that’s not stopping anytime soon.
2) Defense wins championships
UCLA closed its regular season with three straight losses to Colorado, Oregon and Oregon State — all 2021 NCAA Tournament teams — which perhaps cast a bit of a pall on the Bruins’ postseason possibilities.
But over these last four weekends, there’s an argument to be made that not only has UCLA played the toughest overall schedule to make the Final Four, but has also played the most consistent defensively.
Through five games, Cronin’s crew has yet to surrender 50% scoring from the field, and only Michigan State in the First Four has broken UCLA’s 3-point defense for better than 30%.
Meanwhile, the other three teams have experienced some slip ups along the way — though it’s nitpicking at this point of the tournament. Gonzaga gave up 50% from the field against Oklahoma in the Round of 32. Baylor has relinquished 40% shooting from the field or better in the last three rounds (though against Arkansas, Villanova and Wisconsin). And Houston, the No. 2 ppg defense in the country coming into this weekend, has given up 37% from the arc or better in two of its last three games (Oregon State, Rutgers).
Michigan (KenPom: 4) 39.2% 27.3%
Alabama (KenPom: 9) 43.5% 25.0%
Abilene Christian (KenPom: 85) 29.8% 21.1%
BYU (KenPom: 17) 49.0% 17.6%
Michigan State (KenPom: 64) 47.5% 33.3%
KenPom average: 35.8
USC (KenPom: 6) 38.7% 26.7%
Creighton (KenPom: 21) 40.6% 21.7%
Oklahoma (KenPom: 42) 50.0% 31.3%
Norfolk State (KenPom: 209) 30.6% 33.3%
KenPom average: 69.5
Arkansas (KenPom: 19) 48.1% 27.3%
Villanova (KenPom: 12) 43.5% 17.6%
Wisconsin (KenPom: 13) 45.5% 38.1%
Hartford (KenPom: 195) 35.2% 22.7%
KenPom average: 59.8
Oregon State (KenPom: 43) 46.8% 37.5%
Syracuse (KenPom: 41) 28.0% 21.7%
Rutgers (KenPom: 38) 44.0% 43.8%
Cleveland State (KenPom: 170) 38.6% 40.0%
KenPom average: 73
An adjusted tempo of 64.0 per KenPom (338th in the NCAA; 64 possessions per 40 minutes), the Bruins are the slowest team left in the field, and have absolutely zero issue maintaining their own pace and grinding out close wins. UCLA has turned the ball over 36 times in five games; their 7.2 TOPG is ninth in all of the 2021 NCAA postseason (and also a Final Four best).
3) The basketball gods will deem it so
In what has been a chaotic college basketball season from start to finish, what better way to confirm the craziness than have 11-seeded UCLA top undefeated Gonzaga, then go on to beat either Baylor/Houston in the final? Every time we think something is impossible, basketball deities only defy logic. After all, No. 16 UMBC had no chance against No. 1 Virginia in 2018, only to become the first-ever team to beat those odds.
While the 2021 NCAA Tournament does have two No. 1 seeds and a No. 2 seed in the Final Four, the Plinko balls haven’t exactly fallen the way everyone thought they would. Seed lines haven’t held much weight, and now the ‘Zags are 14-point favorites over UCLA on Saturday — a groundbreaking edge.
Cronin, an energetic coach known for his fiery postgame speeches and halftime locker room talks, will undoubtedly use such slights as a psychological edge for his UCLA team, though it hardly needs it after holding Michigan to 0-for-8 from the field in the final two minutes of the Elite Eight.
The lowest seeds to ever make an NCAA championship game? Villanova was an 8-seed when it stunned No. 1 Georgetown in the 1985 final, while Kentucky was an 8-seed when it fell to 7-seeded UConn in 2014. UCLA was an 8-seed when it faced Louisville in the 1980 championship game.
UCLA, with its rich history and undefeated 1970’s seasons under legendary coach John Wooden, would be the rightful team to deny Gonzaga — and anyone else — a chance at this glory.