Following its 75-67 win over No. 10-seed Boise State on Thursday, Northwestern returns to the Golden 1 Center for a Round of 32 matchup against a team few, if any, would seek out: the No 2.-seed UCLA Bruins. Led by stars in Tyger Campbell and Jaime Jaquez Jr., the Bruins are a popular pick to cut down the nets in Houston for the first time since 1995 — if they can get past the Wildcats, that is. To learn more about NU’s Saturday foe, Inside NU had the chance to chat with The Daily Bruin’s Jon Christon to dive deeper into the team wearing UCLA Blue and UCLA Gold.
Inside NU: How do you project the Bruins to adjust a slower, more defense-oriented type of game?
Jon Christon: I actually think a defense-first game plays pretty favorably into UCLA’s hand. Mick Cronin is known for “mucking” up games, so to say, and I don’t think there are many coaches that can out-muck him. The Bruins thrive in low-possession, high-defense slugfest type of games. They obviously have one of the best defenses in the country, if not the best. KenPom has them ranked No. 1 in adjusted defensive efficiency, so this game could very well finish in the 50s or 60s. It’ll come down to experience. UCLA has guys – like redshirt senior guard Tyger Campbell and senior guard/forward Jaime Jaquez Jr – who have experience in games like this on this stage (who can forget this beauty of a box score). Time and again, UCLA has been able to close games out even without much rhythm offensively, and I expect that to be the case again Saturday night.
INU: UCLA’s lost once since February 1, and it was on a buzzer-beater to Arizona. How did Arizona manage to do that and how could Northwestern, as the heavy underdog, put on a repeat tomorrow?
JC: Arizona is a huge team, with two starters (Azuolas Tubelis and Oumar Ballo) who stand 6-foot-11 or taller. When UCLA faced them in the Pac-12 Championship Game, the Bruins were without freshman forward Adem Bona, who has been a revelation for Cronin so far this season. UCLA’s two backup bigs (redshirt senior forward/center Kenneth Nwuba and redshirt freshman forward Mac Etienne) both fouled out of that game, and so the Wildcats were able to just dominate the paint. Arizona also was able to put a bigger defender on Jaquez, who struggled pretty mightily in that one too (13 points on 5-of-18 shooting).
Northwestern doesn’t really have the size to dominate UCLA physically like Arizona did, but they can make life hard on Jaquez by putting two defenders on him often – especially in the painted area. Jaquez is the focal point of UCLA’s offense, so if Northwestern can get him out of his rhythm in the paint early, that’ll go a long way to keeping the Bruins under 65 points and pulling off an upset.
INU: Might UCLA’s tournament experience (relative to Northwestern’s lack of it) be an X-factor in this game? How, if at all, will the Bruins let past failures on big stages fuel them?
JC: I mentioned this in the first question, but I’ve never really seen a college team close games as effectively as UCLA does. The Bruins are so methodical in their approach in the final 10 minutes of games and just drain the life out of their opponents. Part of this is just because they’ve played in games like this before. Guys like Jaquez, Campbell and fifth-year guard David Singleton were all on that Final Four team in 2021, and they typically close games for UCLA too. No moment is too big for them.
They definitely are motivated by past losses. This team absolutely hated to lose to Arizona in the Pac-12 title game last week – and it showed against UNC Asheville in the Round of 64 on Thursday night. They were firing on all cylinders from the start, with a 14-0 run off the opening tip. So, in short, this team really does take past losses to heart. I know Jaquez, Campbell, Singleton, etc. are all still mad about Jalen Suggs’ shot in 2021, and given that this is their last run together, they have all the motivation in the world right now. I certainly wouldn’t want to play them.
INU: How’s UCLA adjusted to life without Jaylen Clark?
JC: Better than expected, I would say. It’s a small sample, but UCLA has actually improved both their KenPom offensive and defensive efficiencies since Clark’s been out. That is not to say UCLA is better without Clark – far from it – but they do have the depth to sustain such an injury. The roster really has banded together to plug some of the holes Clark left (i.e. another wing defender), with guys like Amari Bailey and Will McClendon really upping their defense of late in more minutes. This team is using his injury as motivation, almost, especially on the defensive end.
But I am worried about Jaquez, now that he has to guard the other team’s best wing every game. He’s more than capable, but it might be too much for him to be the focal point on both ends of the court for 40 minutes of high-level, NCAA Tournament basketball. He struggled in the Pac-12 tournament with the new role, but seemed to bounce back Thursday (albeit against lesser competition).
Overall, I think UCLA’s ceiling is shorter without Clark, but the Bruins have more than enough depth to withstand his loss and make a deep run in March.
INU: How does the general UCLA community see Northwestern as an opponent?
JC: The Bruin faithful are probably overlooking Northwestern a little bit too much. UCLA fans are deservedly confident, but I’ve seen a bit too many of them say it’ll be an easy win for the Bruins. Northwestern is obviously talented and can hang around with anyone in the country, and the game actually should be fairly close, in my opinion. But I think UCLA fans just see the No. 7 next to their name and look at Northwestern’s history and kind of look ahead to the Sweet 16. That’s probably a mistake, though time will tell.
INU: What’s your game prediction for Saturday, and how far do you think the winner will go?
JC: 69-58 UCLA.
I think Northwestern will hang in this game longer than people expect. UCLA is not a good first-half team whatsoever, so it wouldn’t surprise me if the Wildcats are actually leading at the halftime break. But this UCLA team just has so much experience and motivation that I really can’t see them losing before the second weekend. Boo Buie will put up a good fight, for sure, but I don’t think Northwestern has enough firepower (especially from the 3-point line) to keep up in the second half. UCLA will deliver one of its patented knock-out punches after halftime and won’t look back.