Scouting UCLA's opponent in the first round of the NCAA Tournament
What the Bruins hope will be a lengthy stay at the NCAA Tournament begins Thursday.
UCLA, a 4-seed in the East Region, faces 13th-seeded Akron in the first round. That game is scheduled to tip off at 6:50 p.m. PT on TBS. The Bruins are headed up to the Moda Center in Portland, Oregon, for the game. Despite a strong enough résumé to warrant consideration as a 3-seed and a potential spot in San Diego for the opening round, the Bruins were passed up and sent up the coast.
“We taught everybody last year that our seed doesn’t matter,” head coach Mick Cronin said this week.
Up first on the quest back to the Final Four: the Zips.
Here’s what to expect.
The Skinny on Akron
Record: 24-9, 14-6 MAC
The Zips finished with the third-best conference record in the regular season, three games back of first. A tie with Ohio in the wins column went to the Bobcats and put the Zips as a 4-seed in the MAC Tournament. Against the teams that finished ahead of them (Kent State, Toledo), Akron was winless in the regular season in three tries, but then downed both in the conference tournament to claim the MAC title.
They beat Toledo 70-62 in the semis, then turned around and whipped Kent State 75-55 in the championship game. Including the MAC tournament, Akron has won eight straight.
This will be the Zips’ first appearance in the tournament since 2013 and fifth overall trip to the dance.
KenPom ranking: 131st
Akron ranks 113th in adjusted offensive efficiency, according to KenPom, and 166th on the defensive side. Don’t let the name fool you, this group is going to grind the game to a screeching halt and then get itself to the foul line. The Zips rank fifth nationally in free throw rate. They hit just 69% of their foul shots as a team, but it still does damage.
All-around, this is a solid shooting team with a moderately good amount of minutes continuity to it, according to KenPom. With a true shooting percentage of 57%, Akron ranks among the top 50 shooting clubs in the country. They get up a healthy dose of 3s and shoot the long ball at a 36% clip (74th).
Ali Ali and Xavier Castaneda are the names to know.
The 6-foot-8 Ali holds a 24.1% usage rate this season, a number that was even higher in conference-only games, and he has a little bit of everything to his game. He averages 17 points every 40 minutes on the court, leads the Zips in assists at 2.6 a night, and shoots the 3-ball at a 41% clip. Expect Ali to live on the floor against the Bruins either as a stretch 4 or a small-ball 5.
How UCLA chooses to counter that with center Myles Johnson, whose defense has risen to another level recently, will be a subplot to monitor.
Ali will dribble himself into a fallaway midrange jumper from the baseline or step back into a 3 on the break. At his size, that’s a guy that requires some extra time in the gameplan to prepare for. He’s got six games this season with more than 20 points, including a 32-point explosion on New Year’s Day in a 12-point win over Buffalo. He’s also got nine games with at least four assists.
Castaneda is the 6-foot-1 guard averaging 13.5 points and 2.3 assists this season. He shoots it 10 times a game and gets six of those up from behind the arc, where he shoots 38%. Castaneda actually averages about a half a board per game more than Ali, but Akron doesn’t really need the oversized wing player to crash the boards. It has a guy in Enrique Freeman who averaged a double-double for the season (13.2 points, 10.8 boards a game). Freeman also averages 1.6 blocks per-40.
The Zips aren’t a particularly big team outside of Freeman, and UCLA’s wings should have a size advantage. The main contributors in the backcourt will be Castaneda and 2-guard Greg Tribble, with Garvin Clarke coming off the bench in a sixth-man role. Tribble stands 6-foot-1 while Clarke is 6-feet.
UCLA’s length on the perimeter should be an advantage. Jules Bernard, Johnny Juzang, and Jaime Jaquez Jr. all stand at 6-foot-7, giving Cronin some things to potentially play with on the defensive end when it comes to coverages. Jaylen Clark and Peyton Watson coming in off the bench will have the same kinds of advantages.
Akron does have a 7-foot freshman center to throw at UCLA in Aziz Bandaogo, but if he’s playing major minutes it probably means something isn’t working for the Zips. He’s been mostly out of the rotation for the last seven games and didn’t see the floor in Akron’s title win.
If UCLA wants to turn up the heat defensively and try to create some runout opportunities, Akron won’t have the athletes to stop it. The Zips don’t have a problem with giving the ball away, but they don’t force many turnovers either. UCLA could create a numbers advantage in a game Akron wants to keep low-possession.
KenPom says: UCLA wins 71-58, 89% chance to win
It would be a surprise if the Bruins lost to the Zips. Elsewhere in the bracket, 13s over 4s are popular picks. South Dakota State, early on, was getting picked to upset Providence in over a quarter of ESPN’s Tournament Challenge brackets.
UCLA is playing like a Final Four threat right now, though. It doesn’t come with the same kind of question marks as a Providence or an Arkansas does. The Bruins rank eighth nationally in KenPom with both a top-15 offense and a top-15 defense, something that usually forecasts a legitimate threat to win a national championship.