UCLA-Gonzaga Sweet 16 matchup would be tasty for Las Vegas
A matchup of UCLA and Gonzaga in the West Regional at T-Mobile Arena would pit two programs with local ties in a rematch of the greatest game in recent memory.
The two West Coast juggernauts last played basketball in Las Vegas, leaving with wildly different outcomes and with hopes to return later this month to play again at T-Mobile Arena in the NCAA Tournament’s West Regional — against one another.
Second-seeded UCLA, the reeling Pac-12 runner-up, lost a heartbreaker to Arizona in the conference championship game — and its best perimeter defender to an Achilles injury. Third-seeded Gonzaga is once again the West Coast tournament champion via blowout victory over Saint Mary’s, but without the top tournament seeding to which it has grown accustomed.
To that potential Sweet 16 matchup, two words.
A showdown between the two regional powers is the most intriguing the West Regional can offer, pitting two programs with local ties in a rematch of the greatest game in recent memory.
Former Liberty standout turned Gonzaga wing Julian Strawther was a reserve when he watched teammate Jalen Suggs bank in a 40-footer to lift his top-seeded Bulldogs over the 11-seeded Bruins in overtime of the 2021 Final Four.
UCLA redshirt freshman guard Will McClendon was concluding his senior season at Bishop Gorman.
Their rosters have changed, but the rivalry remains intact, bolstered last season by a rematch at T-Mobile Arena.
Gonzaga deprived us of another theatrical ending, cruising to an 83-63 victory in November 2021 — then as the nation’s No. 1 team to No. 2 UCLA.
A rowdy announced crowd of 12,975 packed the arena to cheer the Bruins and the Bulldogs.
“It reminded me of something you’d see in a regional final or regional semifinal,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said afterward. “It was loud. Both teams’ fans showed up. Great atmosphere, and the atmosphere matched perfectly with the game and what was at stake and the two teams that were out there.”
Perhaps a premonition.
They’re even more evenly matched this time around: Gonzaga, buoyed by senior big man Drew Timme, Strawther on the wing and a seasoned collection of complementary players who thrive in Few’s system. UCLA is rugged and experienced, boasting the senior trio of senior forward Jaime Jaquez, Tyger Campbell and David Singleton, key contributors from the Final Four team who assuredly would love to avenge that loss.
‘A new season’
“Us three have had a lot of conversations about this being our last year together and just embracing it. This is one final chance to make something happen,” Jaquez told reporters on Selection Sunday. “Our backs are against the wall right now, we feel like. But we’re embracing it. We take everything that comes with it.”
“It’s a new season,” Jaquez added, referencing the 61-59 loss to Arizona in Saturday’s final.
Bruins faithful did their part, combining with Wildcats fans to fill the allotted seating at T-Mobile Arena and cheer throughout a competitive game, only to see their squad squander an eight-point lead in the second half.
Gonzaga’s fans had no such issue during their annual pilgrimage to Orleans Arena, where they watched the Bulldogs play their best basketball in a 26-point rout of the rival Gaels.
Their seeding befits their resumes, UCLA for its dominance in the Pac-12 and Gonzaga for the slight slippage it endured amid the loss of Chet Holmgren to the NBA.
And it befits their budding rivalry, positioning them for a showdown in the Sweet 16 that Las Vegas deserves.
“Our losses early in the year made me appreciate the little things it takes to win night in and night out,” Timme said after the victory over Saint Mary’s.
“I think sometimes we just assumed we would win every night because we’re Gonzaga. It was a grind this season, and I think that’s what made us appreciate the journey and embrace the details. You can’t just wake up and say we’re going to be a tough team. You have to get through the dirt and the mud.”
And perhaps UCLA.
Or perhaps vice versa.
Contact Sam Gordon at email@example.com. Follow @BySamGordon on Twitter.