No. 1 Gonzaga vs. No. 2 UCLA: Validation or revenge?

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The man who’s most qualified to pick the winner of Tuesday night’s Gonzaga-UCLA showdown isn’t ready to make a prediction. Bellarmine coach Scott Davenport won’t say which team he thinks is better after facing both in a span of 72 hours.

Is it the top-ranked Zags, who overwhelmed Bellarmine with smothering defensive pressure last Friday night en route to a 42-point rout? Or is it the second-ranked Bruins, who three nights later opened a 23-point early second-half lead before taking their foot off the accelerator? Davenport plays it coy. The graying former Rick Pitino assistant chuckles and says, “You’d have a better chance asking me to dunk a basketball than to try to choose between them.”

What Davenport did tell Yahoo Sports is that he expects Tuesday’s 1-versus-2 matchup in Las Vegas to be a worthy sequel to last spring’s epic national semifinal. You might remember Johnny Juzang going full flamethrower to carry UCLA to the brink of a massive upset. Or Jalen Suggs answering with a buzzer-beating 40-footer to halt UCLA’s unlikely run and temporarily save Gonzaga’s perfect season.

Every UCLA player who appeared in that game is back this season, though the second-ranked Bruins (5-0) are likely to be without injured forward Cody Riley on Tuesday night. Three of Gonzaga’s starters left for the NBA, but the top-ranked Zags (5-0) have rebuilt around national player of the year candidate Drew Timme and the most decorated recruiting class in program history.

“These are two teams who can win the national championship,” Davenport said. “They’re very, very different, but they’re very, very good at what they do.”

Gonzaga center Chet Holmgren reacts after his dunk during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Bellarmine, Friday, Nov. 19, 2021, in Spokane, Wash. (AP Photo/Young Kwak)
Gonzaga center Chet Holmgren reacts after his dunk during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Bellarmine, Friday, Nov. 19, 2021, in Spokane, Wash. (AP Photo/Young Kwak)

Gonzaga's star power remains with Drew Timme and Chet Holmgren

The way that opponents attacked Gonzaga last season was to put Timme in a high-ball screen, pull him away from the basket and force him to defend in space. Not only did the lumbering Timme struggle to keep perimeter players in front of him, his absence in the paint left the Zags without a defender who could alter shots at the rim.

The arrival of ballyhooed freshman Chet Holmgren instantly transformed those weaknesses into strengths. The mobile, athletic NBA prospect moves laterally well enough to deal with most perimeter players yet he is also an elite rim protector whose 7-foot-6 wingspan has allowed him to block 16 shots during Gonzaga’s first five games.

“They’re driving it down in there on [Holmgren] and they’re not even looking at the basket,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few told reporters in Spokane after Friday’s victory over Bellarmine. “That length is real.”

The 7-foot Holmgren is such a safety blanket that his presence frees Gonzaga’s long, athletic perimeter players to extend defensively and take more risks. The Zags have forced more than 15 turnovers per game this season and parlayed many of those into transition opportunities.

When Gonzaga has to score against a set defense, its offense typically runs through Timme. The skilled 6-foot-10 forward punishes defenses with his deft footwork, array of post moves and knack for taking advantage of the slightest miscommunication between ball screen defenders.

Texas bravely tried to defend Timme with a single defender earlier this month. He wrecked the Longhorns for 37 points. Bellarmine sent an extra man at Timme on the catch or on the bounce. He piled up 25 points and appeared comfortable passing to open shooters out of double teams, contributing to the streak-shooting Zags sinking 11 of 23 attempts from behind the arc.

“Talk about pick your poison,” Davenport said. “What do you do? What do you do?”

Memories of epic Final Four finale 

Considering that Texas is still adjusting to a new coach and incorporating a bevy of newcomers, it’s a safe bet that UCLA will provide Gonzaga’s toughest test so far this season. If anything, the Bruins look more dangerous than the team that waylaid Alabama and Michigan last March en route to the program’s first Final Four since 2008.

The competitive spirit that fueled last season's run remains a hallmark of this year’s UCLA team. So does the attention to detail on defense that Mick Cronin demands. And many of the complementary players around Juzang and do-it-all co-star Jaime Jaquez have elevated their games.

Oft-overlooked guard Jules Bernard has blossomed into an 15-point-per-game scorer while also increasing his efficiency as a shot maker. High-energy defensive menace Jaylen Clark keeps finding new ways to impact the game without scoring. Rutgers transfer Myles Johnson fills a void with his presence at the rim and on the glass. And, maybe most important, steady point guard Tyger Campbell no longer is someone defenders can sag off and dare to shoot. The onetime 25 percent 3-point shooter was 11-for-18 from behind the arc this season before missing all six of his attempts on Monday night.

“We chart our shooting drills in practice and he’s been a consistent winner,” Cronin told reporters last week. “A lot of it with him is just his confidence. I’ve tried to spend more time on his head than his form. He knows that for us to be who we want to be, we need him to knock down open shots.”

The wild card in Tuesday night’s matchup is how the memory of last season's classic Final Four game will impact either side.

For Gonzaga, Suggs’ banked-in game-winner was a moment of pure elation. When Few began preparing for UCLA last week by studying last season’s game, he sent Suggs clips of him and his wife and kids rewatching that shot.

For UCLA, replays of Suggs’ heroics evoke only heartbreak. Cronin has said he pauses the game tape every time after Juzang’s game-tying putback on the second-to-last possession of overtime. He sees no reason to torture himself watching the Bruins failing to pressure the ball seconds later and allowing Suggs to run into his final shot.

To the credit of Few and Cronin, they recognized that the Final Four meeting was an all-time-great game and worked together to schedule this rematch.

On one side will be a Gonzaga team trying to validate its No. 1 ranking. On the other will be a UCLA team trying to overtake the Zags and gain a measure of revenge. And among the eager viewers will be the only coach in college basketball who has already faced both teams.

Davenport’s only prediction: “This game will be great for college basketball. That’s what I think. The sport needs matchups like this.”

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