NCAA Elite 8 preview: Gonzaga Face toughest test yet, Michigan gets Cinderella UCLA

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-UCLA at Alabama
UCLA is the last remaining Cinderella Story at the NCAA Tournament.
Kareem Elgazzar/IndyStar via USA TODAY Sports

Once again, Gonzaga took care of business Sunday, dismantling No. 5 Creighton 83-65 to move onto the Elite 8 of the 2021 NCAA Tournament.

Another wire-to-wire, double-digit victory — their 26th straight of that nature— see Gonzaga at a perfect 29-0 on the season. It will face its stiffest competition of the tournament when it faces No. 6 USC on Tuesday.

Both teams have steamrolled their way to the Elite 8, making this a very highly anticipated matchup for the undefeated Bulldogs.

Meanwhile, in the East Region, No. 1 Michigan continued to prove the doubters wrong, blowing out a very tough Florida State team, 76-58. 

The Wolverines got contributions from two unexpected role players in Brandon Johns Jr. (14 points, six rebounds), and Chaundee Brown (12 points, 5-of-6 FG), and were the better team from start to finish.

Hunter Dickinson (14 points, eight rebounds) and Franz Wagner (13 points, 10 rebounds) were magnificent as well, taking the pressure off guards Mike Smith and Eli Brooks, who struggled from the field against FSU’s suffocating perimeter defense.

Up next for Michigan is No. 11 UCLA, who survived a wild game against No. 2 Alabama in the Sweet 16, outlasting the Tide in overtime, 88-78.

Both 1-seeds opened as comfortable favorites, creating unique opportunities for bettors seeking potential value on the higher-seeded underdogs from the Pac-12.

Here’s who I’ll be backing on Tuesday.


No. 1 Gonzaga (-9) vs No. 6 USC

Tuesday, March 30, 7:15 p.m. ET

The Zags will have their hands full against a long, athletic, USC team, as this rendition of the 2020-21 Trojans feels far more like a 2-seed than a 6-seed.

SC is spearheaded by Isaiah and Evan Mobley — the latter being a projected top-3 pick in this year’s NBA Draft — as the two are as versatile a frontcourt Gonzaga will see this season.

Evan (16.3 ppg, 8.8 rpg, 3.0 bpg), the Player of the Year in the Pac-12, will be tasked with slowing down Gonzaga big-man, Drew Timme (18.9 ppg, 7.2 rpg), who has dominated his last two opponents— averaging nearly 26 and 10 on ridiculous percentages. 

With the feet of a Russian Ballerina and the facial hair of a 19th century Wild West figure, Timme is the heart-and-soul of this ‘Zaga team, making this an intriguing matchup for viewers and players alike.

I’ll be curious to see whether head coach Andy Enfield deploys a zone against Gonzaga’s frenzied pass-heavy offense, as their 2-3 worked wonders against Kansas and Oregon in their past two matchups.

And last, if USC continues to get production out of unlikely heroes Tajh Eddy and Isaiah White, the Trojans could make this one very interesting — especially if the Mobley brothers have their way inside.

I’ll take the points here, as the market seems to be overcompensating for Gonzaga’s blow-out potential, ballooning this number to nine.

The Pick: USC +9


No. 1 Michigan (-7.5) vs No. 11 UCLA

Tuesday, March 30, 9:57 p.m. ET

Tuesday’s tilt between top-seeded Michigan and No. 11 UCLA was only picked in 1.2% of ESPN brackets, giving viewers a glimpse of how improbable this matchup was, and now is. 

The Wolverines were a very trendy upset pick in each of the past two rounds, but once again, here they are.

Just a 1.5-point favorite against Florida State Sunday, it really goes to show how disrespected Michigan’s been in the betting market since the Isaiah Livers injury a few weeks ago.

A 1-seed was practically a Pick ‘Em against a 4?

Give me a break.

Nonetheless, the Maize and Blue are now just a game away from another Final Four berth, as they’ll get a stingy UCLA team in the Elite 8.

The key in this one will be two-fold: 

  1. Do the Bruins have the length to match up with the 7 foot Dickinson inside?

  2. Can UCLA get consistent scoring out of Jaime Jaquez Jr. and Johnny Juzang against Michigan’s top-10 ranked defense?

The former will be the more pressing question, as UCLA’s acting center, Cody Riley, is merely 6-foot-9 and despite his four blocks against ‘Bama in the Sweet 16, he’s still only averaged less than one per game on the season.

However, I do think the aforementioned tandem of Jaquez and Juzang could combine for north of 50, putting a lot of pressure on Michigan’s offense to muster up 70-plus points.

Both these teams boast eerily similar metrics (tempo, 3-point shooting, turnover rate) across the board, making this matchup rather difficult to handicap.

However, there’s just something special about what Mick Cronin’s team is doing right now, and I really like the prospects of getting this many points in what figures to be a slow-paced, half-court game.

I’ll take the Bruins to cover the 7.5.

The Pick: UCLA +7.5