March 18, 2017
By Bill Koch
Game Notes vs. UCLA | Watch Live (NCAA.com)
NCAA Bracket | Official Bearcats Interactive Guide, presented by Skyline Chili
SACRAMENTO - Despite UCLA’s substantial 11-2 advantage over the University of Cincinnati in national championships, Sunday’s NCAA Tournament second-round South Regional matchup won’t be a case of David vs. Goliath from a historical standpoint.
Before the Bruins dominated the game with 10 national titles in 12 years in the 1960s and early 1970s, UC was the king of the hill, with five straight Final Four appearances in the late 1950s and early 1960s. And if they hadn’t let a 15-point lead slip away in the second half of the 1963 national title game against Loyola (Ill.) the Bearcats and not the Bruins would have been the first team to win three straight national championships.
UCLA ranks seventh all-time with 1,849 victories, but UC isn’t far behind, ranking 16th with 1,758. And UC leads the all-time series with the Bruins, 2-1. No. 6 seed UC (30-5) is the second team in school history to win 30 games. No. 3 seed UCLA, a 97-80 winner over Kent State on Friday is 30-4. Tipoff is approximately 9:40 p.m. at Golden 1 Center.
But when you watch this latest 21st century version of UCLA basketball under Steve Alford, you see a team that at times looks as if it’s playing a different version of the game than everyone else. The Bruins lead the nation in scoring with 90.6 points per game utilizing their up-tempo, shoot-from-anywhere-on-the-floor style with six players who average in double figures. They feature freshman Lonzo Ball, 6-foot-6 guard who many believe will be the first player taken in the NBA Draft this summer, the sweet-shooting guard Bryce Alford and TJ Leaf, who leads the Bruins with 16.4 points per game.
If you let them have their way, they can be dazzling.
“They put you in situations where you’ve got to pick your poison,” said UC coach Mick Cronin. “Their big guys are so versatile that’s what makes them such a tough cover. Ball’s as good a passer since Oscar Robertson. You’ve got to make sure they’re playing five on five. If they’re not playing five on five, we’re not gonna win. If you let UCLA get into transition all night, we’re in trouble.”
And that’s where UC’s defense comes in. The Bearcats rank fifth nationally in scoring defense, allowing 60.8 points per game.
“They’re physical,” Alford said. “They get into it, so we can’t have the ball sticking. We’ve been a team that moves the ball very well. So we’ve got to keep that ball moving whether we’re at half-court or in the full-court. We’ve got to make sure our spacing is good, our cutting is sharp, our screens are good and physical and the ball movers. If it doesn’t, and it becomes a grind, that favors them.”
The Bearcats are no slouch on offense either. They’re coming off a 62.8 percent shooting effort in Friday’s 75-61 first-round win over Kansas State that set a school record for an NCAA Tournament game and are shooting 45.8 percent from the field, tied for the seventh-best mark in school history.
As UC forward Jacob Evans noted, “You don’t win 30 games without scoring the ball.”
All of which leaves the Bearcats faced with the prospect of walking a fine line against UCLA.
“You’ve got to be careful in a game like this because you don’t want the tempo to be helter-skelter because it falls right into their hands,” said assistant coach Darren Savino, who did the scouting report on UCLA. “You’ve got to take what they give you. The key is to have patience on offense. To really eliminate their transition game is to not turn the ball over and not take quick tough shots that we can’t rebound because that really gets them going. Your offense in a game like this really can hurt you from a transition standpoint.”
Fortunately for the Bearcats, they can turn to Friday’s game to set the perfect model for what they’ll try to accomplish against UCLA. In that game, they shot well because they took advantage of their transition opportunities and executed well in the half-court, passing well, taking good shots and not panicking when the shot clock wore down.
“That has a wearing effect on your opponent,” Cronin said. “And when you make the shots late in the clock like Troy (Caupain) did, that breaks their back.”
For all the Bruins’ weapons, Savino said, perhaps the biggest key to UCLA’s offense is Alford, who shoots 43.6 percent from long range.
“He can really shoot you out of it,” Savino said. “But if you contest him and make him take really tough shots and he misses it, it changes the dynamics. You’ve really got to shut him down and don’t let him get open looks.”
A victory would propel UC into the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2012 and the 11th time overall. The Bearcats are confident they can make that happen. They displayed no sense of being awed by UCLA’s offensive acumen during their media interviews Saturday.
They refused to play along with any of the story lines presented to them by reporters.
“I don’t really care what people are making it out to be,” said forward Kyle Washington. “We’re just ready to play basketball.”
Bill Koch covered UC athletics for 27 years – 15 at The Cincinnati Post and 12 at The Cincinnati Enquirer – before joining the staff of GoBearcats.com in January, 2015.