2021 has already been an epic year for the University of Alabama athletics department, but Tide Hoops has the chance to take it up yet another notch by matching the program’s deepest NCAA Tournament run with a win Sunday night. That would send the Crimson Tide (26-6, 19-2 SEC, NET: 7, Kenpom: 8) to the Regional Final, otherwise known as the Elite Eight. The only other time Alabama has accomplished that feat was during the magical 2004 run under Mark Gottfried. In order to advance though, the Tide will have to claim victory over a hot UCLA Bruins team (20-9, 13-6 PAC-12, NET: 46, Kenpom: 22).
Mick Cronin’s Bruins have broken through to the second weekend of the tournament for the first time since 2017, in only the second year in Cronin’s tenure. At Cincinnati, Cronin’s teams were well known for their defensive prowess, but that end of the court is most definitely still a work-in-progress for UCLA, as that was always the Achilles Heel under the Bruins’ former coach, Steve Alford. That’s probably the biggest difference between UCLA and Maryland, who Alabama, of course, defeated in the previous round.
Besides that, this is going to feel like a very similar match-up for the Crimson Tide. UCLA, like the Terrapins before them, is a guard-heavy team that lacks size in the front-court and is extremely slow in tempo. Like Maryland, the Bruins are at their most dangerous when they are able to get a few of their guards going from the perimeter. For those reasons, Alabama’s path to victory Sunday night will be much like it was last Monday, which the Tide executed to perfection.
Can Alabama repeat its second round performance and advance to the illustrious Elite Eight?
POINT 5’11 Tyger Campbell (10.1 PPG, 5.4 APG, 2.1 RPG, 1.0 SPG)
GUARD 6’6 Johnny Juzang (15.1 PPG, 4.1 RPG, 1.7 APG)
GUARD 6’6 Jules Bernard (10.4 PPG, 5.0 RPG, 1.6 APG)
GUARD 6’6 Jaime Jaquez (12.2 PPG, 6.1 RPG, 1.5 APG, 1.1 SPG)
POST 6’9 Cody Riley (10.0 PPG, 5.4 RPG, 1.2 APG)
As mentioned, the Bruins starting five is incredibly similar to Maryland’s - guard-dependent, good size in the back-court with very little in the front-court, and responsible for entirely all of the team’s production. Unlike the Terps, however, UCLA has a go-to point guard that tees it all off in Tyger Campell. The sophomore guard is one of the best passers and assist-men in the country (30.4% AST%), and he very rarely ever turns the ball over (15.5% TO% on 19.4% USG%). Additionally, he can be dangerous attacking the rim, but he becomes a real problem whenever his jump-shot is on (41.6%/25.0%/78.3%).
Joining him in the back-court is UCLA’s trio of 6’6 guards - the Triple J’s. Juzang is the go-to, high-volume scorer (42.9%/35.3%/90.7% on 12.8 FGAs per game). The former five-star and Kentucky Wildcat has been the main engine powering the Bruins current tournament run, as he’s gone for 23, 27, and 17 points in their first three games (remember, UCLA had to win a First Four match-up just to get in the field). Jaquez is more efficient from the field (49.4%/40.2%), but he struggles from the charity stripe (64.0%). Where Jaquez comes up the biggest (figuratively and literally) is on the boards - he’s the team’s leading rebounder (11.0% REB%). Bernard is the lone upperclassman in the back-court, and while he doesn’t press the issue as much as the other two, he’s quite the scorer when he needs to be (46.0%/40.2%/72.9%).
Cody Riley rounds out the starting unit as the lone starter in the post. The Bruins lost their original starting five, Chris Smith, only a few games into the season, so Riley’s been tasked with a very important fill-in spot. There’s nothing special to his game - he can’t stretch the floor as a shooter, doesn’t create many turnovers via blocks or steals, and isn’t a great free throw shooter (67.0%), but he plays hard and has performed admirably in a tough position (14.8% REB%, 100.7 DRtg).
Off the Bench
GUARD 6’4 David Singleton (4.6 PPG, 1.6 APG)
GUARD 6’5 Jaylen Clark (2.6 PPG, 2.3 RPG)
GUARD Jake Kyman (3.4 PPG, 1.0 RPG)
POST 6’9 Mac Etienne (2.8 PPG, 3.1 RPG)
The injuries to Chris Smith and, more recently, Jalen Hill, really hurt UCLA’s depth in their rotation. Singleton (43.4%/45.6%/62.5%) and Kyman (40.7%/36.0%/66.7%) are certainly capable scorers, but that’s about all they do well currently, and clearly - based on PPG -they aren’t doing a ton of it. Etienne provides relief for Smith in the post with solid numbers (60.0% FG%/16.1% REB%/102.1 DRtg).
Four Keys to Victory
- Control the Tempo. As I said before, the keys to winning Sunday night will be very similar to the way the Tide cruised over Maryland in the last round. Alabama absolutely dominated the pace of the game against the typically-slow Terps, and Maryland’s usually-stout defense couldn’t handle it. If that team couldn’t adjust to the tempo, with their versatility on the defensive end, I have a hard time believing UCLA will be able to with it’s 337th ranked pace of play. Now, the Bruins are more well equipped to prevent the game from turning into a track meet thanks to their ability to take care of the basketball, as they only turn the ball over 10.7 times a game, one of the best marks in the nation. Still, expect Alabama to be the aggressors on defense to try to force the issue.
- Treys All Day. Again, UCLA’s biggest weakness is its defense - specifically the inability to run players off of the three-point line. Cronin was surely drilling this into the Bruins’ heads all week, but its really hard to go from an average defense that plays at a slow pace to playing high-level defense against a high-tempo team like Alabama just by trying to simulate it in practice. Cronin’s defense is a match-up man concept similar to the pattern-matching that Nick Saban runs on the gridiron. It takes time to master it, and if not executed correctly, there can be a lot of busted assignments that allow for open looks. The three-point shots will be there, the Tide just needs to knock them down. It was a beautiful sight to see John Petty get going midgame last round, not to mention Jaden Shackelford’s litany of daggers, Josh Primo’s surprising return from the corner of the arc, or Alex Reese shooting the way he can when he is on. On the flip-side, UCLA is actually highly efficient themselves from the perimeter (37.4% 3P% - 34th in the country). The problem is they only attempt about 18 per game. Alabama’s defense needs to keep them at that number or less to prevent the Bruins from being able to match the Tide’s volume with their own efficiency.
- Rebounding. The Bruins lack size in the interior, and it really shows up on the post-game stat-sheet. Alabama has out-rebounded its first two opponents in the tournament by 16 and 21 board margins. What was an issue for the Tide for most of the season has turned into a strength of late, particularly against smaller teams like UCLA. If the rebounding edge looks anything like the first two rounds, it’s hard to envision a scenario where the Bruins win this game.
- Fouls and Free Throws. With the pace that Alabama plays at and the advantage in depth that the Crimson Tide will enjoy, UCLA could really find itself in a lot of trouble if fouls start to rack up on them. On the other hand, the Bruins’ guards are really good from the free throw line. They will be attacking early and often. This is one of the areas that UCLA can utilize to pull off the upset and win this game. If the whistles are quick on the Tide, things could certainly get interesting.
I mentioned in the preview for the Maryland game that last Saturday night worked out beautifully for the Tide with Texas, UConn, and BYU all falling to lower-seeded foes, and that’s not just because it ensured that the Tide wouldn’t have to play a single-digit seed the rest of the way to the Elite Eight. Maryland and UCLA were/are fantastic match-ups for Alabama (and Abilene Christian was honestly trash; there’s a reason Shaka Smart left Texas yesterday). On paper and on film, this should be another game the Tide wins handily.
However, this is March, and UCLA’s guards have been playing really good basketball thus far - there’s a reason the Bruins are in the Sweet Sixteen. Since halftime of the First Four opener with Michigan State, UCLA has dominated its opponents. BYU and Abilene Christian never even competed in those two games. Alabama almost certainly won’t shoot as well as it did the other night against Maryland, so the Tide will need to make-up for that in other areas.
Still, if Alabama can execute on the keys listed above, the Tide will be advancing to the Elite Eight for only the second time ever. That would end all arguments for the best season in Tide Hoops history.
The game will tip-off at 6:15 PM CDT Sunday night and will be televised on TBS. The Tide is a 6.5-point favorite.