One of college basketball’s best rivalries takes another turn on Thursday, as two of the best in the West square off in Las Vegas with the West Region’s No. 2 seed UCLA Bruins and No. 3 seed Gonzaga Bulldogs running it back 2 years after their Final Four foray. It should be yet another classic matchup between the programs.

Here are my thoughts on the best Sweet 16 matchup of them all …

Win, lose or Drew for Bulldogs

Priority No. 1 for UCLA — and, well, for every team that has faced Gonzaga for about 4 years now — is stopping the Bulldogs’ bulldog, Drew Timme. The Zags’ long-time scoring leader moved into some rare company with his 28-point performance in Gonzaga’s Round of 32 win over TCU, becoming just the 7th player in college basketball history with 9 20-point NCAA Tournament games. That level of consistent high production on college hoops’ grandest stage is almost unfathomable.

“I mean, he’s a guy that can always take over a game,” UCLA coach Mick Cronin said. “You can have him in check for 30 minutes, then he can dominate the last 10, he’s just that kinda guy. He’s been doing it for a long time, not an easy guy to deal with. Puts a lot of pressure on your defense – a lot of pressure. Tremendous, tremendous offensive player.”

UCLA freshman stud Adem Bona will likely be tasked with trying to limit Timme, though UCLA’s defense has become much more by-committee since star perimeter defender Jaylen Clark suffered a season-ending injury in the season finale. Bona is still rounding into shape after suffering a shoulder injury in the Pac-12 Tournament semifinals against Oregon, which kept him out of the tourney final and the Bruins’ opening-round win over UNC Asheville.

“We’ve been able to keep it going without the best perimeter defender I’ve ever coached in the Pac-12, defensive player of the year Jaylen Clark,” Cronin said Wednesday. “We just had the makings of a team that could be great defensively.”

But Timme, man, can’t be stopped.

He had 32, 25 and 25 points in Gonzaga’s Sweet 16 run last year, and had 30, 22, 23 and 25 points during the Zags’ run to the championship game in 2021 before running into Baylor, which held him to just 12 points on 5-of-7 shooting. The Bruins can learn a lot from the Bears’ strategy in the title game. They prevented Timme from getting touches, particularly in the sweet spot just inside the arc.

“As fun and as charismatic and goofy as he is off the floor, he’s an elite-level competitor when the ball goes up,” Few said. “And I think sometimes people focus on these great defenders out there and describe how tough they are. I would argue you have to be every bit as tough and a little bit tougher to consistently deliver night in and night out when the opponent is trying to stop you with everything they’ve got — double teams, their best defender, fouling, anything. And he’s just been able to rise to that occasion time and time again.”

Back in a familiar setting

It’s not just that UCLA and Gonzaga are familiar with Las Vegas, considering their respective conference tournaments were just held in Sin City, but both are getting quite accustomed to the Sweet 16. The Bruins are 1 of just 4 teams back for the 2nd weekend in 3 consecutive years, joined by Houston, Arkansas and, of course, Gonzaga.

This makes 8 straight Sweet 16s for the Bulldogs, by far the longest stretch in the country, while their 25 consecutive Tournament appearances also ranks among the nation’s best.

“I think it’s one of the greatest, probably 1A and 1B — the Sweet 16 run of 8 years and making it 25 years straight is probably the thing I’m most proud about, what all our teams have been able to accomplish,” Few said. “It means we’ve stayed relevant. We haven’t dropped off. We haven’t taken a year in the NIT or couple years in the NIT. We haven’t lost the first round. And, again, the guys deserve all the credit for maintaining that kind of winning DNA and just figuring it out. As you know, you followed us all year, this probably wasn’t looking realistic there way back in November or early December.”

Baby Bruins vs. Savvy Zags

It doesn’t just end with Timme and Bona tangling. Gonzaga has a marked experience advantage over the Bruins.

Gonzaga’s 8 rotational players — starters Timme, Julian Strawther, Nolan Hickman, Anton Watson, Rasir Bolton and backups Malachi Smith, Hunter Sallis and Ben Gregg — have a combined 27 years of experience at the college level, including this one, an average of 3.375 years per player.

The 9 Bruins who have seen considerable action in the postseason so far — Jaquez, Singleton, Campbell, Bona, Bailey, Nwuba, Etienne, Andrews and McClendon — have a combined 23 years of experience, averaging 2.56 years per player.

That gap — of nearly a year per player — is huge.

So, too, is the Zags’ dispersal of experience: Gonzaga has 1 player with 5 years of experience (Bolton), 3 with 4 years (Timme, Watson, Smith), 2 with 3 years (Strawther, Gregg) and 2 with 2 years (Hickman, Sallis). UCLA has 1 with 5 (Singleton), 3 with 4 (Jaquez, Campbell, Nwuba), 1 with 2 (Etienne), and 4 with 1 (Bona, Bailey, Andrews, McClendon).

While the battle-tested Jaquez and Campbell and the valuable reserve-turned-starter Singleton have been pushed to the limit, the same can’t be said for UCLA’s youth movement.

“We’ve got veterans on the team, that’s my advantage,” Cronin said Tuesday. “We’ve got guys, they know this is their last time doing it – Tyger, Jaime and David. So they’re definitely bringing a sense of urgency to the young guys.”

While they may not boast years of experience, the loss of Clark and Bona in recent weeks has thrust several Bruins into unfamiliar roles. Nwuba, who has averaged fewer than a point per game in his career, had 10 points in UCLA’s opening-round win. Etienne also had 10 in that game, and McClendon had 4 points, 3 rebounds and 2 assists.

And then there’s Andrews.

Anyone who watched the Bruins’ win over Northwestern saw an untested freshman come alive at just the right moment. When Singleton went down with a twisted ankle while being fouled with 20 seconds left and was rendered unable to shoot his ensuing free throws, Andrews stepped in and nailed both to put UCLA up 6. That kind of moment can add years to your resume.

“It might sound crazy, but I expect that from — not just me but the team — expects that from him,” Campbell said Wednesday. “Ever since he’s got here he’s been a dog and he’s been willing to learn. And he’s asked me all types of questions. And he’s trying to figure it out one game at a time. And I think that he just shows that he’s ready when he comes in. Like to your point, those big free throws that he hit, we don’t win unless he hits those. So he’s just a guy that stays ready and when his time comes, it’s going to be crazy. He’ll show everybody.”

Tuning out the noise

I’m not one who believes much in the perils of Las Vegas in settings such as this. College coaches generally run a tight ship, and the players know what is at stake. There aren’t going to be too many late-night visits to the high-roller rooms.

Still, sometimes they need to be reminded.

“We talk about this moment all year, so we’re all business,” Cronin said Tuesday. “It’s all business for us. The biggest thing now is making sure you eliminate your distractions – tickets, hotels, friends, a million people that are trying to get a piece of you right now. That’s the only thing I talk about right now that’s different, is you gotta make sure you block all that stuff out, tell them you’ll call them in two weeks.”

Back in a familiar setting, Part 2

The Bruins and Zags don’t just have the Sweet 16 in common. Two years ago, they met in a Final Four instant classic, with Jalen Suggs’ halfcourt bank heave at the buzzer going down as one of the great moments in March Madness history (unless you’re UCLA fan). Bruins fans also aren’t apt to want to remember their matchup Gonzaga last year, as well, when the top-ranked Bulldogs handed the 2nd-ranked Bruins a 20-point loss.

Even if these players aren’t old enough to remember Adam Morrison’s tears from back in the 2016 Tournament, there is enough recent bad blood to make this rivalry boil over.

“I would say there’s been a rivalry kind of building up the past couple of years,” Watson said. “Every time we play them it’s a high-energy game. There’s going to be a lot of fans there from both sides. And they really want to beat us and we want to beat them. It’s going to be a fun game. We know what to expect. It’s really just going to be competitive from the start.”

Homecoming for McClendon

He’s not likely to see a ton of minutes against the veteran-laden Zags, but if I’m Cronin, I give Bishop Gorman product McClendon some run, even if to just see if he provides an energy spark. McClendon hails from one of the most professionally run high-school programs in the country, as Gorman boasts arguably Southern Nevada’s top football and basketball programs. The basketball team, under long-time had coach Grant Rice, has been among the top-ranked teams in the country in multiple years.

Cronin said that when he was hired at UCLA, he called Rice, who told him he needed to recruit McClendon.

“Will, as you know, was a big shot-maker at Gorman,” Cronin said. “He was known as Big Shot Will. And I know he still has that in him. We work with him every day on it, just trying to keep his confidence up. Obviously his numbers show. If you didn’t know him, you’d think he’s not a shooter. But if you watch high school basketball in Las Vegas, you know that’s what he was. But he’s just a winner. And I believe in winners. So Grant knows me. He knows what I’m looking for. This kid’s a winner. He’s your type of guy. Guys help you win in a lot of ways.”

Brotherly love in the Sweet 16

Let’s hope the Jaquez family has some decent travel perks. Things are about to get crazy.

In what is believed to be a first in college basketball, a brother and sister are appearing in the Sweet 16 at the same time, playing for the same school. Gabriela Jaquez is a key contributor to the Bruins women’s basketball squad that takes on mighty South Carolina on Saturday in the Women’s NCAA Tournament Sweet 16.

“I think just being able to see firsthand her growth as a player but also as a woman as well,” Jaime said, when asked about the most special thing about playing together with his sister this season. “This is just a big transition in everyone’s life when they go to college. I think she’s handling it great. Obviously they’re in the Sweet 16. But I think more than that she’s learning how to live by herself, on her own, and kind of finding her own way in life. I think that’s really cool as an older brother just to see my little sister grow up in front of my eyes.”

Speaking of Jaquez: the Pac-12 Player of the Year figures to have a big game against the Bulldogs, who are allowing opposing teams to shoot 68 percent at the rim. Jaquez is able to put the Bruins on his back just like Timme is able to for Gonzaga.

Sweet 16 prediction

Heading into the tournament, with the shock of Clark and Bona’s absence so raw, I just about wrote the Bruins off. It’s hard to imagine a team with such a young bench being able to galvanize so quickly. Yet that’s exactly what UCLA has done. In the aggregate, the Bruins have played tremendous defense in Clark’s sustained absence, and Bona showed just enough in the Round of 32 win over the Wildcats to convince me he’s up to the Timme task.

This may just be the kiss of death for the Bruins, a dozen years after UCLA’s last kiss of death.

Final score: UCLA 74, Gonzaga 70