Going into Saturday’s NCAA action, it looked like Gonzaga was a lock to earn the No. 1 seed in the West. Many, myself included, were prepared for the Bulldogs to finish the regular season undefeated and attempt a historic run through the tourney. Then the Bulldogs went and ate shit against BYU the same night UCLA avenged a January loss to Arizona, and now that top seed is up for grabs.
While Gonzaga was fucking up its Senior Night, the Bruins faced off with Arizona to give us one of the season’s great games—their second of the season after the Wildcats downed UCLA 96-85 in January—and greatly complicate the selection committee’s job.
eLet’s once again acknowledge that the Bruin offense is balanced and beautiful and an absolute force of God—I have no idea how infuriating it must be for a defensive wizard like Arizona coach Sean Miller to watch UCLA forward Thomas Welsh drop in baby hooks and baseline jumpers like nobody was guarding him and also have to worry about guarding Lonzo Ball and T.J. Leaf; I imagine it’s a grating experience.
But it wasn’t just the Bruins’ offensive attack—which featured five players scoring in double digits and systematically dismantled the Wildcats’ man defense—that brought down Airzona. This time around, the Bruins showed that they have learned to play some honest-to-God defense.
Since being upset by USC after the Arizona loss, UCLA has reeled off a seven-game winning streak by way of holding all seven opponents under 80 points—an impressive feat considering this is the same team that allowed more than 80 points to Pacific and Cal State Northridge and currently owns the No. 255 scoring defense in the nation.
But other than Allonzo Trier, the Bruins stymied the majority of the Wildcat stars with a mean 3-2 zone. Outside of 6-foot-1 Aaron Holiday, all of the players in UCLA’s rotation stand at least 6-foot-3. All that length was zipping around the court and preventing the Wildcats from getting the ball inside, and by the end of the game only Trier and Parker Jackson-Cartwright were able to match their season scoring averages. Even with Ball shooting 1-of-5 from long range, the Bruins’ defense was able get the win.
God bless Trier, by the way—the sophomore was an offensive mastermind, dropping 28 points on 11-of-14 shooting and single-handedly keeping this game from becoming a double-digit stroll for the Bruins. Understand this: If not for the NCAA’s bullshit hard-line PED policy, Trier’s name would be right next to those of Luke Kennard, Markelle Fultz, and Lonzo Ball as one of the best guards in the nation.
UCLA now has two of the best road wins of any team the nation, having downed Arizona and then-No. 1 Kentucky, which held its ground and beat then-No. 13 Florida on Saturday thanks to another monster outing from Malik Monk. The Bruins also own a recent three-point victory against Oregon. On the year, UCLA has the 15th-best RPI ranking and the 117th-best strength of schedule.
The AP Poll doesn’t mean shit in all of this, by the way, as it’s now merely a measuring tool for writers and fans to know what teams are actually good throughout the regular season. The tournament selection committee does not take it into consideration when they seed, so the fact that UCLA hopped Gonzaga to nab the No. 3 slot in this week’s poll is no indication whatsoever of what the committee will ultimately decide in two weeks.
Gonzaga is still without a doubt one of the best six teams in the nation—on Saturday night’s Arizona-UCLA telecast, one of the announcers started talking about how the Wildcats should want to be a two-seed in the West so they could have a shot at avenging their Dec. 3 loss to the Bulldogs. Trust me: nobody with a functioning brain and eyes wants to face Gonzaga come March. This team is fucking sweet with the ball. They might lose in the Sweet 16 again and fulfill their stereotype, but that doesn’t mean this team isn’t a cut above recent iterations of the Bulldogs.
As it stands now, UNC is leading the race to lock up the South; Villanova owns the East’s top seed; and Kansas claims the Midwest’s. Gonzaga’s loss opens the door in the West, and UCLA, with a well-timed top-5 win, is standing right outside. A similar case could be made for Oregon, as the Ducks are poised to claim the hotly contested regular season Pac-12 title. They also have two very, very bad losses to Georgetown and Colorado, two teams currently a combined 30-28; UCLA’s worst loss is to 21-8 USC.
The challenge now facing the Bruins is to not fuck up against Washington and Washington State and have a solid showing in the Pac-12 tournament; as Gonzaga will tell you, not fucking up is easier said than done.