Sweet 16 Preview: UCLA vs. Gonzaga

Sweet 16 Preview: UCLA vs. Gonzaga

UCLA Bruins vs. Gonzaga Bulldogs

Line: UCLA -2

Total: 145.5

Where: T-Mobile Arena, Las Vegas, Nevada

When: Thursday, 3/23 at 9:45 p.m. ET

TV: CBS

No. 2 seed UCLA and No. 3 seed Gonzaga shared one of the most memorable games in NCAA Tournament history when they met in the 2021 Final Four, so fans will be hoping for another thriller when they battle in the Sweet 16 on Thursday night.

Gonzaga was a 14.5-point favorite in its buzzer-beating win in that matchup, going on to fail in its quest for an unbeaten season in the title game two days later. The aura surrounding the Bulldogs has been much different this year, as they were viewed as a disappointment by many when they lost five games during the regular season.

That did not hold them back from making the Sweet 16 for the ninth straight season, extending their winning streak to 11 games with an 84-81 win over TCU in the second round. Their backers were left with a sour taste in their mouths after the Horned Frogs hit a last-second 3-pointer for the backdoor cover, though.

UCLA is getting set for its sixth consecutive Sweet 16 appearance after beating Northwestern by five points on Saturday. The Bruins allowed the Wildcats to erase a 13-point deficit, but they managed to hang on despite making one field goal in the final five minutes of the game.

Oddsmakers opened UCLA as a 1.5-point favorite, but the early betting action moved that spread to -2. Thursday night’s total opened at 145.5, which is where it remained as of Tuesday night.

The Bruins were impressive in the opening round, breezing past UNC Asheville in an 86-53 final after losing to Arizona in the Pac-12 title game. They are playing without Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year Jaylen Clark (Achilles), while big man Adem Bona missed the opener and was not at 100% against Northwestern.

UCLA is led by senior forward Jaime Jaquez Jr., who scored 24 points against Northwestern and has averaged 9.2 rebounds over his last six games. Senior guard Tyger Campbell finished with seven assists after having 10 against UNC Asheville.

The Bruins are outside the top 130 nationally in 3-point percentage (34.8), 2-point percentage (50.8) and free-throw percentage (72.8), but they are inside the top 35 in turnover rate and offensive rebounding rate. They also have KenPom’s second-ranked defense that is No. 11 in turnover percentage.

That defense will be tested by Gonzaga veteran Drew Timme, who has scored at least 20 points in five straight NCAA Tournament appearances. He had a game-high 28 points in Sunday’s win over TCU, helping overcome a 10-point outing from teammate Julian Strawther.

“I think he (Timme) is going to go down as one of the all-time great college players in the history of the game,” Gonzaga head coach Mark Few said.

Gonzaga leads the nation in adjusted offensive efficiency, ranked inside the top 15 in 3-point percentage (38.4), 2-point percentage (58.7) and turnover rate. It has averaged more than 90 points per game during its 11-game winning streak, but it has also allowed 80 points on four occasions during that stretch.

While the Bulldogs are known for consistently making the Sweet 16, they have failed to cover the spread in seven straight NCAA Tournament games, allowing 78.7 points per game in those outings. UCLA has been a different story, going 8-3 ATS in its last 11 games in the Big Dance.

Gonzaga has gone ‘over’ the total in nine of its last 12 games, while UCLA has gone ‘over’ in five of its last seven. The Bulldogs are 4-1 SU and 5-2 ATS in their recent meetings with the Bruins.  

The pick: Gonzaga +2

The Bulldogs have been shockingly bad at covering the spread in NCAA Tournament games over the past few years, but I can’t fade them as underdogs in this matchup. While I would normally prefer to back the elite defense against an elite offense at this stage of the tournament, the elite defensive team is without its best defender. Gonzaga has a size advantage as well, and Timme leads an offense that ranks second nationally in 2-point percentage. The Bulldogs have won 13 straight games against Pac-12 opponents and are riding an 11-game winning streak overall. This game should be a pick’em, providing some value on Gonzaga as an underdog despite its recent struggles to cover the spread during March Madness.

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