NO. 11 UCLA VS. NO. 2 GONZAGA
■ SITE: NRG Stadium, Houston
■ TV: 4:15 p.m., CBS (8)
■ LINE: Gonzaga -8½; total 145½
■ STORYLINE: Gonzaga dominated UCLA when the teams met 3½ months ago, but there is much more at stake today when the West Coast powerhouses meet in the Sweet 16. The Bulldogs led by double digits for most of the second half and shot 58.5 percent overall (and 9 of 19 on 3-pointers) en route to an 87-74 road victory Dec. 13.
“They’ve been there, done that,” Bruins coach Steve Alford said that night. “We’ve got a lot of guys going through it for the first time. (Gonzaga’s players) don’t panic. They play with great poise. Offensively, they’re really hard to guard because they have so many guys who can make 3s, yet people will tell you their strength is on the inside.”
The Bulldogs have lost only twice all season — both three-point defeats — and their win over the Bruins marked one of 29 times this season Gonzaga has scored at least 70 points. The Bulldogs routed Iowa 87-68 in the round of 32 behind standout forward Kyle Wiltjer, who shot 10 of 12 overall and 4 of 6 on 3-pointers en route to 24 points. UCLA posted a 17-point win over Alabama-Birmingham its last time out behind 28 points and 12 rebounds by Tony Parker.
■ ABOUT UCLA (22-13): The Bruins have won six of their last seven games, with the only defeat a tight setback against Arizona in the Pac-12 Conference tournament semifinals at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. Their first two wins in the NCAA Tournament have proven UCLA can win with defense (60-59 over Southern Methodist) and offense (92-75 over UAB), while Bryce Alford was a constant, averaging 24.5 points on 12-for-16 3-point shooting. “People are going to say whatever they want,” said Alford, whose 15.6 points per game rank second on the team to Norman Powell’s 16.4. “But when you look back on it, we’ve been in the Sweet 16 last year, and we’re there again this year. That doesn’t just happen. You’ve got to win big games to do that.”
■ ABOUT GONZAGA (34-2): The Bulldogs are the nation’s best shooting team (52.4 percent) and also rank in the top 10 in scoring (79.1, 10th) and assists (16.5, sixth). “It’s without a doubt the best offensive team I’ve ever been associated with,” said coach Mark Few, whose top scorers are Wiltjer (17.1 points) and Kevin Pangos (11.8). “The firepower, the versatility, the ability to share the ball.” Wiltjer is 12 of 17 from 3-point range in his last four games, while Pangos is 12 of 22 from the arc over the same span.
1. The winner will face No. 1-seeded Duke or fifth-seeded Utah on Sunday in the South final. Gonzaga’s only trip to the Elite 8 came in 1999, while UCLA reached three straight Final Fours from 2006 to 2008 but has not gotten back to the Elite Eight since.
2. Both teams rank in the top 30 nationally in rebounding. UCLA is led by Kevon Looney (9.2 rebounds), while fellow freshman Domantas Sabonis (7.1) tops Gonzaga.
3. Wiltjer scored 24 points on 9-for-13 shooting during the teams’ first meeting, while Southern Cal transfer Byron Wesley shot 7-for-8 en route to 20 points for the Bulldogs.
■ PREDICTION: Gonzaga 77, UCLA 69