INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Next up on the long list of wannabes eager to stop, or even slow, the undefeated Gonzaga Bulldogs is a team basketball fans might have heard of: UCLA.
In a strange twist that typifies a strange year, the legacy program with more national championships than anyone is a plucky up-and-comer this time around. The Bruins are listed as the biggest underdog at the Final Four in 25 years — 14 points — as they head into Saturday night’s game.
And tiny Gonzaga — enrollment 7,300 with a dozen or so very talented basketball players sprinkled among them — is the behemoth nobody can seem to touch.
UCLA is the fifth 11th seed to reach the Final Four, and joins the 2011 VCU squad as the second to get this far after starting in the First Four, the preliminary round the NCAA added when it expanded the bracket to 68 teams a decade ago.
Heading into Selection Sunday, the Bruins (22-9) were viewed as slightly better than a bubble team, but the First Four placement identified them as one of the last four teams in. That placed a chip on their shoulders, but with Gonzaga (30-0) looming, this is no time for outside motivation, according to coach Mick Cronin.
“I give them pointers and try to be honest and tell them how hard it’s going to be because of who we’re playing,” said Cronin, who has led UCLA within two wins of the program’s 12th national title. “I’m not the false-motivation guy, because none of that is going to help you when you’re trying to stop Jalen Suggs in transition.”
Suggs, a freshman who will likely go in the NBA lottery if he leaves after one season, is one cog on a team with the nation’s best offense (91.6 points per game), the nation’s best shooting percentage (54.8) and the nation’s most impressive margin of victory (23.1). The Zags have won 29 of their first 30 games by double digits.
The winner advances to Monday’s final to face the winner of the Houston-Baylor semifinal.
Gonzaga is two wins away from becoming the first undefeated team since 1976, when Indiana did it en route to the national championship. If the pressure of making history is weighing down the Zags, coach Mark Few certainly can’t detect it.
“What you see is real,” he said. “They don’t seem the least bit burdened by it.”
Going undefeated has not been a topic of conversation among the coaches or players.
“We just want to win this tournament, that’s all,” Few said. “And at this point in time, we know we have to finish undefeated to win this tournament. It’s all about beating UCLA now.”