Hall of Fame broadcaster Dick Vitale’s return to courtside was but one part of a special Tuesday night for college basketball, with the top-ranked Gonzaga Bulldogs taking down the No. 2 UCLA Bruins 83-63 in a rematch of a 2021 Final Four thriller.
Unlike April’s overtime spectacle, Gonzaga dominated this edition from start to finish, setting the tone by shooting a blistering 15-of-26 (57.7%) over the first 20 minutes to take a 45-25 lead into the halftime break. Freshman phenom and potential No. 1 pick Chet Holmgren was excellent (15 points on 6-of-8 shooting, 4 blocks), and guard Andrew Nembhard (24 points, 6 assists, 5 rebounds) made his presence felt against UCLA’s highly decorated backcourt.
The win effectively silenced any lingering doubts about whether the Zags are the game’s team to beat in 2021-22, and the implications should ripple well beyond November.
With that in mind, ESPN’s college basketball team of Myron Medcalf, Jeff Borzello, John Gasaway and Joe Lunardi weighed in on the finer points of the Zags’ victory, the Bruins’ loss and the road ahead for both championship hopeful teams.
What was the most striking difference between the Gonzaga/UCLA game we saw Tuesday night and the one we saw back in April?
I’ll start with two key personnel changes. On one side, Gonzaga added Chet Holmgren. On the other, UCLA didn’t have Cody Riley. Holmgren completely changed the way Gonzaga can defend in the half court. UCLA put up points with ease in April, shooting 62% inside the arc and 47% from 3, scoring better than 1.20 points per possession. Johnny Juzang and Jaime Jaquez Jr. had success getting in isolation settings and then making shots. With Holmgren anchoring the defense, however, Gonzaga’s perimeter defenders can extend a bit further, gamble a little bit more and be more aggressive. It disrupted every part of the UCLA offense.
Back in April, Riley was a real factor in the paint. He had 14 points, 10 rebounds and 5 assists and held his own against Drew Timme down low. He’s 6-foot-9, 250-plus pounds with a capable low-post game and left-handed finishing moves. But he’s out due to an MCL sprain in his left knee. Riley would have provided an offensive option against Holmgren in the paint, and his physicality would have caused issues.
The other big change from April is Andrew Nembhard‘s improvement. He was the fourth or fifth option on the offensive end for the Zags last season, splitting playmaking and ballhandling duties with Jalen Suggs and sometimes Joel Ayayi. This year, it’s his backcourt and his team. And Nembhard is playing like the best point guard in the country right now. Against Texas earlier this season, he had nine points, eight assists and just one turnover. He was even better against UCLA. Nembhard had 11 points in the first 11-and-a-half minutes, controlled the tempo, made the right decisions when Gonzaga had fast-break opportunities and hit a couple big shots when it seemed like UCLA might take back the momentum.
Lastly, UCLA simply couldn’t make shots. A lot of that had to do with Gonzaga’s defense, but early on, the Bruins had open shots and weren’t making them. That’s a stark contrast to the UCLA of last season’s NCAA tournament, when it seemed like Juzang and Co. couldn’t miss anything. On Tuesday, they could, and did. They missed seven of their first eight shots and 16 of their first 19 shots. By that point, Gonzaga was up by 21 and the game was essentially over.
— Jeff Borzello
Dick Vitale reacts to Chet Holmgren’s impressive block and transition dunk for Gonzaga.
The last time we saw sensational freshman Chet Holmgren against a top-tier opponent, he was not particularly effective in a win over Texas. How was the UCLA game different for Holmgren?
With less than two minutes to play in the first half, Chet Holmgren picked up his second foul and went to the bench. Anton Watson subbed in and Jaime Jaquez Jr. immediately attacked the rim. The sea had parted and UCLA wanted to take advantage. That’s the impact Holmgren had in his team’s dominant victory over UCLA. All night, he was a mismatch problem who showed far more aggression on both sides of the floor than he had in his timid outing against Texas.
Early in the game, UCLA bumped him and pushed him the way the Longhorns did. Holmgren seemed prepared for it this time. He used his length to block and alter shots and change UCLA’s entire offense. The Bruins missed 25 of their first 31 shots — the vast majority in the paint — because they couldn’t navigate Gonzaga’s length. He finished with four blocks.
Holmgren stayed patient throughout the game. You could see it in his shot selection: the spin and score off the right block, the layup from the left side, the open 3 on the right wing. He was economical. And even though Holmgren picked up his third foul early in the second half, the way UCLA went at him, he could have fouled out by halftime. But Holmgren was more patient compared to the Texas game, which obviously helped his growth.
— Myron Medcalf
Which element of Tuesday night’s performance for UCLA is an overreaction, and which is a real issue for the Bruins?
Worrying excessively about UCLA’s offense is an overreaction. The Bruins can go a very long time before they miss this many shots again. Gonzaga is a great team that made it all the way to the national title game undefeated last season, but the Bulldogs did not do so primarily with fearsome field goal defense. And, while the presence of Chet Holmgren this season definitely adds a new wrinkle in the Zags’ rim defense, Mick Cronin’s guys shot a measly 39% on their 2s and made just two 3s all night. That’s extreme, and performances that extreme won’t happen too often.
But wondering about this defense and specifically its ability to stop opponents in transition is a real issue. The Zags carved UCLA to ribbons in transition in the game’s first 10 minutes, and Mark Few’s team even scored on a fast break when the Bruins missed a free throw. True, UCLA won’t often see an opposing point guard as masterful as Nembhard (who made a habit out of rocketing the ball down the center of the floor and all the way to the rim in the first half). Nevertheless, this group of Bruins was just average on defense in Pac-12 play last season, and in fact UCLA hung its hat in its Final Four season on excellent defensive rebounding. When the opponent’s consistently scoring in the first eight seconds of the shot clock, however, excellence on the defensive glass carries you only so far.
— John Gasaway
Rasir Bolton gets nothing but net on his corner 3-pointer for Gonzaga.
What are the likely Bracketology implications of this result for top-seeded Gonzaga and UCLA? How is the NCAA selection committee likely to analyze a result from Nov. 23 in March — especially if the committee has to break a tie for a 1-seed?
The first consideration for the committee is identifying the No. 1 overall seed. Once again, as was the case a season ago, that team is Gonzaga. The Bulldogs’ emphatic victory simply adds to the separation between the Zags and the rest of the top-line contenders. Gonzaga is clearly No. 1 overall and would remain a 1-seed even with a loss to Duke at the end of the week.
UCLA’s story is more complicated. The magnitude of this defeat will fade over time, except perhaps in the case of a head-to-head seeding decision. What won’t fade is the urgency of bouncing back. The Bruins open their Pac-12 schedule next week and have additional nonconference tests this month against Marquette and North Carolina. A No. 1 seed on Selection Sunday, if it occurs, will be hard-earned.
Overall, these early-season blockbusters are a bit of a cheat code for bracketologists. Head-to-head results, while rarely definitive in March, can’t be ignored in November. Gonzaga slots ahead of UCLA, which slots ahead of Villanova, etc. Next in line after the Zags are Kansas and Purdue. The fourth 1-seed in Friday’s bracket update is up for grabs, with the Bruins still in the mix along with Duke and Baylor.
— Joe Lunardi
What must Duke do against Gonzaga on Friday night that UCLA didn’t? Do the Blue Devils have a fighting chance?
Duke will be underdogs — and given that Gonzaga was a 7.5-point favorite against UCLA, Friday’s spread might get to double digits — but the Blue Devils certainly have a chance. The biggest key is obvious: Duke will have to make shots from the perimeter. Because Gonzaga has Holmgren protecting the rim and Timme also defending the paint, there are going to be open jumpers. UCLA just didn’t hit them in the first half on Tuesday. Since a 1-for-12 3-point shooting effort on opening night against Kentucky, Duke has improved dramatically from the perimeter, making at least eight 3s in all five games and hitting 39% or better in three of five games.
Taking care of the ball and transition defense is going to be another major factor. Gonzaga has players who can create in a half-court setting, but the Zags are deadly in transition. Live-ball turnovers, bad shots, blocked shots — those all lead to fast-break opportunities for the Bulldogs. And Nembhard is as good as anyone in the country at making the right decision in transition. Duke has done a good job of limiting turnovers this season; that needs to continue on Friday.
One other thing for Duke to focus on Friday is staying aggressive offensively — but being smart about it. Holmgren is an all-world shot-blocker, no question, but Duke can’t be afraid to attack the paint. Texas shied away from attacking the rim early in the Longhorns’ game against Gonzaga, but started being more aggressive in the second half. UCLA continued to attack but forced up shots or went up soft. Duke will need to attack Holmgren but needs to utilize pump-fakes, initiate contact — if he’s able to easily get vertical to block shots, it’s going to be a problem. Given how physical Paolo Banchero, Trevor Keels and Wendell Moore Jr. can be when they’re attacking, I think Duke will find more success than UCLA in the paint.
— Jeff Borzello