Gonzaga Bulldogs (-5, 147 o/u) at UCLA Bruins
The No. 9 Gonzaga Bulldogs (8-1, 0-1 away) rebounded from a heartbreaking 66-63 OT loss at No. 3 Arizona with a convincing 81-66 win over in-state rival Washington State on Wednesday. Tonight, the Zags will try for their first true road-win of the year against another dangerous, athletic opponent, the UCLA Bruins (8-2, 7-0 home).
Gonzaga coach Mark Few has arguably his most talented roster ever this season. It doesn’t boast the lottery talent of a Kelly Olynyk, Adam Morrison, or Austin Daye, but it does feature several top recruits and dynamic transfers. Among the transfers are former Kentucky Wildcat (and SEC Sixth Man of the Year) Kyle Wiltjer and former USC Trojan Byron Wesley, who are one and two in scoring for the Zags (16.2 PPG and 12.1 PPG, respectively).
The Bulldogs also feature two European big-men making their mark on the North American game. Junior center Przemek Karnowski (out of Poland) tied a personal best with 22 points against the Cougars; the surprisingly nimble seven-footer poses matchup problems for nearly every team Gonzaga faces.
Up front, starters Karnowski and Wiltjer rotate with freshman Domantas Sabonis (son of Lithuanian Hall-of-Famer Arvydas Sabonis), who is averaging 11.2 PPG and 5.7 RPG in under 20 minutes of court time. Scouts and pundits alike rave about the young Sabonis’ veteran savvy. The 18-year-old possesses a litany of post moves that confound defenders and belie his age.
Perhaps the best evidence of Gonzaga’s talent this year is that the three paragraphs above don’t even mention the ostensible strength of the team: senior guards Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell. Since arriving in Spokane four years ago, Pangos and Bell have lived up to their billing as the next great Gonzaga guards. Both have seen their point production drop this year with the influx of talent to the team, but they remain the heart-and-soul of the squad.
Pangos has turned into an elite distributor, averaging almost six assists per game and posting a nearly 5-1 assist-to-turnover ratio in the early going.
Bell, who has always been deadly from long-range, continues to shoot the three well this year, draining almost 44% from beyond the arc. While Gonzaga has started to play a lot of zone this season, Bell remains the team’s best man-to-man defender, as evidenced by his play against Oklahoma State’s Marcus Smart (the No. 5 pick in last year’s NBA draft) in the 2014 tourney.
On the other side of the floor tonight will be a Bruins team which also features two talented, veteran guards. Norman Powell (17.9 PPG) and Bryce Alford (17.5 PPG) are first and second in scoring for the Bruins who, as a team, average over 81 points per night (18th in the country).
But it’s not only the guards getting it done for the Bruins this year. Like the Zags, UCLA has a balanced roster. Up front, freshman Kevon Looney is having a sensational first season, averaging 13.9 points and 11.2 boards per game. Looney’s strong play on the glass, coupled with the hustle of unfortunately-named forward Tony Parker (8.1 RPG), has the Bruins averaging 43.1 rebounds per night (11th in the nation).
Looney and Parker will be fighting tooth-and-nail for every board tonight with Karnowski, Sabonis, and company. Though the Zags are only 37th in rebounding, that is partly a product of their efficiency from the floor. Gonzaga is shooting nearly 53% from the field (fifth overall) compared to just 46.3% for the Bruins (88th overall).
Poor shooting has largely been to blame in both of UCLA’s losses this season. In the Nike 2K Classic at MSG, the Bruins dropped two straight to the Oklahoma Sooners and UNC Tar Heels. They mustered just 65 points against the Sooners, but were even worse the next night, scoring 56 against the Tar Heels.
The team rebounded nicely from the losses, though, winning four straight, including a 75-68 victory over Gonzaga’s conference rival San Diego.
The Bruins are a perfect 6-0 at home on the season, but haven’t faced any top-25 teams at Pauley Pavilion. After taking one of the top teams in the nation to OT on the road, the Zags come in as five-point favorites for tonight’s game. Whether the Bruins can hang with the Bulldogs tonight will mostly depend on how well they shoot over the Gonzaga zone.
(Photo credit:SD Dirk (flickr) [https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/]. Photo has been cropped.)