The Sweet Sixteen teams are set. The hunt for the national championship crown now begins in earnest. Kentucky is the clear favorite. The teams considered as the next best chance to win the championship include, in the following order, Arizona, Duke, Wisconsin and Gonzaga.
That's getting a bit ahead of ourselves.
Let's first examine Gonzaga's path to a historic Final Four berth where it is seeded in the South Region.
Gonzaga v. UCLA. For No. 2 seed Gonzaga (34-2) to advance to the Elite 8, it must first defeat No. 11 seed UCLA (22-13) on Friday.
These two teams met in December in Pauley Pavillion on the UCLA campus. Then (9) Gonzaga leading all the way defeated UCLA 87-74 before a raucous crowd. Gonzaga's star forward and Kentucky transfer Kyle Wiltjer scored 24 points in that game. The Bulldog's USC star transfer Byron Wesley had 20 Pts, 9 Reb, 4 Ast and 2 Blk. Figure both players to again be key, within Mark Few's team play approach, in this Friday's matchup. Bryce Alford scored 23 points for UCLA with his sharp 3 point shooting. Alford has been consistently hitting 3's for UCLA's tournament wins against SMU and UAB.
UCLA has been lucky thus far this tournament. First, receiving a tournament bid when many critics considered other teams more worthy. Second, when a referee made the controversial goal tending calling the closing seconds of the game against SMU for a UCLA 60-59 win. The Bruins have turned the tide. But enough to defeat Gonzaga?
The Zags, after a convincing 87-68 win over Iowa in the South Region 3rd Round, are an 8.5 point favorite over UCLA.
The revenge factor. In 2006, at the very same juncture in the tournament, No. 3 seed Gonzaga played No. 2 seed UCLA for the right to play in the Final Four against Memphis. At one point in the matchup, the Bulldogs had a 17 point lead. They lead 42-29 at the half. Gonzaga lead by 9 with 3:30 left, lead 71-68 with 26 seconds left, lead 71-70 with 19.7 seconds remaining, but lost to UCLA, as Gonzaga collapsed down the stetch.
This year's Bulldogs seek to revenge that loss!
Gonzaga v. either Duke or Utah. Coach Mark Few won't allow his team to focus beyond the game against UCLA. However, we can explore the possibilities.
No. 5 seed Utah (26-8) takes on No. 1 seed Duke (31-4) this Friday after the Gonzaga/UCLA game. The Utes have had a Jekyl-and-Hyde season, but, in the tournament, beat SFA 57-50 and Georgetown 75-64.
Duke is having a stellar season, losing only to NC State, Miami, and twice to Notre Dame. In the tournament, Duke handily defeated RMU 85-56 and SDSU 68-49.
With Duke a 6 point favorite to defeat Utah, it's more likely Gonzaga will face Duke for a berth to the Final Four. In a Duke/Gonzaga matchup, there is no clear favorite.
Mark Few has constructed a special team this season. We are about to find out how special.