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Where to Watch: #11 UCLA vs. #1 Gonzaga - Saturday, 8:34 p.m. EST on CBS (@ Lucas Oil Stadium)
The Odds (DraftKings Sportsbook): UCLA +14.5; +700 ML; O/U145.5
Futures Market: UCLA +3,000 to win the national title
In a year in which college basketball’s “Blue Blood” programs largely underachieved, it appears as if one of them has experience a late-season revival. One month ago, the UCLA Bruins were on the cusp of missing the NCAA Tournament altogether. Now as we head into the first weekend of April, they’re one of four teams in the nation still playing. We’ll take a deeper dive into the red-hot Bruins of UCLA below.
Making the case for UCLA: So what changed for Mick Cronin’s team? After all, the Bruins did lose one of their key veterans in senior Chris Smith for the season to a torn ACL back in January. The best explanation here is that the young players for UCLA have grown up and become more consistent. The Bruins played seven games in the month of March, and sophomore guards Johnny Juzang and Jaime Jaquez have scored in double figures in six of those seven contests. Junior guard Jules Bernard showed the ability to take over at times as well, and Tyger Campbell, another sophomore guard, has been a rock solid distributor and ancillary scorer. Add it all up, and you can see why the Bruins are now up to 13th in KenPom’s offensive efficiency metric. With an abundance of sophomores and juniors on the roster, in addition to Smith leading the way, all of these returning players was what made them so intriguing back in the preseason. Ironically, they’re now peaking months after losing Smith. But Cronin’s teams have always had good foundations on defense, and that’s starting to show recently for this UCLA squad, in addition to its offensive depth.
Making the case against UCLA: As we've previously alluded to, the Bruins sure did wait long enough to kick things up a few notches. Who’s to say the team that floundered its way through the majority of the regular season doesn’t show up and look defeated five minutes in on Saturday night against Gonzaga? The Bruins had an overtime game in the Sweet 16, and their regional final/Elite 8 appearance was decided by a mere two points. Alabama also shot 11-for-25 from the free throw line against UCLA in the Sweet 16, while Michigan was 6-for-11 from the charity stripe against the Bruins in the Elite 8. Of course, opponent free throw shooting is not something any team can control, and it worked in UCLA’s favor in both rounds of the regional weekend. Do we really expect Gonzaga to be as kind? History is also working against the Bruins this weekend, as the five previous double-digit seeds to reach the Final Four went 0-5 straight up AND against the spread in the national semifinals. Generally speaking, the cream of the crop rise to the top come this time in the Big Dance. And as we can clearly see, the low seeds that do make it all the way to the Final Four, well they haven’t fared very well. There's a reason UCLA is catching the +14.5 right here.
How UCLA matches up with Gonzaga: Does anyone match up well with the Gonzaga Bulldogs? Mark Few's club is going for a perfect season and have a very clear edge in the frontcourt with Corey Kispert and Drew Timme likely to be in for big games against a smaller team. The Bruins will have to get hot from beyond the arc in order to keep things close from the outset. We also know that while other teams have indeed tried to slow the game down against the Zags, they’ve all failed in some form or fashion. While I mentioned outside shooting being paramount for UCLA in this matchup, on a broader scale the Bruins are just going to have to try to beat Gonzaga at its own game and be prepared to flirt with 90 points. Does that mean I believe at 65.5, UCLA’s team total is woefully low? Well, we'll get into that in a second below, but I’m merely making the case here for the Bruins have a chance at winning this game, which is hard to do given that they’re the biggest Final Four underdog since the field expanded to 64 teams in 1985.
Best Value Bet: UCLA Team Total over 65.5 OR UCLA 1H +8
For what it’s worth, Gonzaga’s last three opponents in the tournament - USC, Creighton and Oklahoma - all scored at least 65 points, and none of those games were close despite Oklahoma getting out to an early lead in the first half. Betting UCLA’s team total over is a smarter bet than taking the Bruins catching the 14/14.5 points here as well. And if you’re simply hoping for a competitive game? In that case I would much rather bet UCLA +8 in the first half against Gonzaga than I would for the full game. As we saw in the Elite 8, if you let the Zags freight train leave the station early on and get down double digits at halftime, you’re likely not going to slow it down. You have to score a bunch and start well to even have a chance.