Basketball is no different from other sports.
Matchups matter. They really do in March.
It’s often what decides NCAA Tournament games, which team has more advantages at multiple spots over the other. It should be no different when the West Regional begins Thursday at T-Mobile Arena.
Arkansas engages Connecticut in one semifinal, and UCLA and Gonzaga meet in the other.
The winners play Saturday for a berth in the Final Four.
“I would always say you want talent and experience, but I’ll take talent,” UCLA coach Mick Cronin said after a second-round win over Northwestern. “The teams that have guys who make plays are the teams that are going to move on.”
All four teams have those sorts of guys to have advanced this far. But there are also differences between the four that should determine who plays themselves into the regional final.
“It means a lot to (get to a Sweet 16),” UConn coach Dan Hurley told Stadium. “Sometimes, really good people can win big things. I think it’s going to be a fun game. I’ve watched (Arkansas) a bunch and think it’s going to be a pretty fun up-and-down style type of game where there’s going to be a lot of really good players on the court.”
That should be the case for both games.
Here is a closer look at each matchup:
No. 2-seeded UCLA (31-5)
How it got here: UCLA eliminated UNC Asheville 86-53 before holding off Northwestern 68-83.
Player to watch: Jaime Jaquez Jr. He is one of the best players in the 68-team draw. He might be the top wing player in college basketball. Big-time competitive streak. This from a player who barely cracked the nation’s top 100 recruits coming out of high school.
Potential unsung hero: Amari Bailey. It’s fairly crazy to consider a five-star recruit unsung, but Bailey as a freshman has the potential to carry UCLA if the Zags lock up or at least limit Jaquez. Extremely athletic, Bailey plays with a sense of fire that inspires teammates.
Outlook: Still with a defense-first approach, the Bruins this season are more versatile than past years. They’re more athletic. They have the size to win matchups at both ends of the court. They’ve also overcome key injuries to continue marching forward in March. The difference here is veteran leadership. UCLA has enough of it to get out of Las Vegas and on to Houston for the Final Four.
Did you know?: UCLA has made a third straight Sweet 16 for the first time in 15 years.
Key stat: UCLA is averaging just eight turnovers in the tournament.
Quotable: “College basketball’s one of the best sports to watch because how hard everybody plays every night. It’s not just this tournament. Everybody just happens to be watching right now. If you’d have been in Vegas earlier when we played Illinois, it was like a Final Four game. That was November. The kids in college basketball, the intensity, it’s so hard to score.” — UCLA coach Mick Cronin.
No. 3 Gonzaga (30-5)
How it got here: Gonzaga beat Grand Canyon 82-70 before rallying to defeat Texas Christian 84-81.
Player to watch: Drew Timme. One of the finest players in college basketball and one of the most successful in history, Timme averages 21.1 points and 7.3 rebounds. His aggressiveness inside was a big reason for the win against TCU. He just makes winning plays, a major reason Gonzaga wins so much.
Potential unsung hero: Rasir Bolton. The senior guard wasn’t at his best the first 20 minutes against the Horned Frogs, but his two 3-pointers as the Zags began to rally in the second half were huge, and he finished with 17 points. He has hit almost 40 percent of his 3s this season. He’ll need at least a few against UCLA
Outlook: How do you combat UCLA’s defense? With the country’s best offense. Gonzaga can go on scoring runs like nobody’s business, averaging 87.3 points. Timme leads the way, but he’s not alone. Four players average double figures for the Zags, including former Liberty High star Julian Strawther (15.3). What a matchup against the Bruins, yet again. Strength vs. strength.
Did you know?: This is Gonzaga’s eighth straight trip to the Sweet 16.
Key stat: Timme is just the seventh player with nine NCAA games of 20-plus points.
Quotable: “He shines on any stage. Listen, I think he’s the best player in college basketball. I think he’s one of the greatest college players who has ever played. He delivers in the NCAA Tournament. When you look at his accomplishments, he’s going to go down as one of the all-time greats.” — Gonzaga coach Mark Few, on Timme.
No. 4 Connecticut (27-8)
How it got here: UConn beat Iona 87-63 before running away from Saint Mary’s 70-55.
Player to watch: Adama Sanogo. He’s a beast at 6 feet, 9 inches and 245 pounds. A junior forward, he averages 17.3 points and 7.5 rebounds. One of the more powerful players in the tournament.. He’s the primary option offensively until defenses prove they can control him. Not an easy task at all. Arkansas will have its hands full here.
Potential unsung hero: Alex Karaban. The redshirt freshman guard shoots 41 percent on 3s, the sort of deep success that could keep Arkansas honest and open up things more inside for Sanogo. Few young players in the country have been as consistent as Karaban, a unanimous pick for the conference’s all-freshman team.
Outlook: Crazy. The Huskies were unranked to begin the season and then climbed as high as No. 2 before hitting a few road bumps in January, losing six of eight. But they have certainly found themselves in this tournament, proving to be as deep and talented as anyone else. They have shot it great from distance and are pounding the offensive boards. They can also get out and run to create transition offense. Talk about playing your best at the most important of times.
Did you know?: The last time UConn advanced this far was 2014, when it won the national title.
Key stat: The Huskies are 3-1 all time against Arkansas.
Quotable: “Our (depth) has served us well throughout a majority of the season, and it has been a difference for us. I think (the January losses) toughened us up and brought us together, and we were able to keep our confidence. It feels great to advance in this tournament, and it sure is sweet to be heading to Vegas.” UConn coach Dan Hurley.
No. 8 Arkansas (22-13)
How it got here: Arkansas took care of Illinois 73-63 before knocking off No. 1 seed Kansas 72-71.
Player to watch: Ricky Council IV. The junior guard averages a team-best 16.1 points and 3.6 rebounds. He has been the constant for a team that has dealt with its share of injuries. A transfer from Wichita State, where he earned Sixth Man of the Year honors in the American Athletic Conference, Council was big down the stretch against Kansas. He hit a huge jumper and made five free throws to keep the Jayhawks just far enough away.
Potential unsung hero: Nick Smith. He has been limited to 16 games and 13 starts because of a knee injury. But when he’s right, he’s a first-round NBA draft pick. Smith played 16 minutes against Kansas, totaling zero points, a rebound and an assist. If he can stay on the court and produce against UConn, the chances of victory became that much more for Arkansas.
Outlook: This has to be Eric Musselman’s best coaching job, shirtless or not. Injuries defined much of the season, and the Razorbacks struggled from January to March. It does help when you have one of the country’s best defenders in Davonte Davis. This wasn’t the best version of Arkansas to enter the madness, but it shows what a first-round win can do for a team as it progresses through the bracket with newfound confidence.
Did you know?: Musselman has led Arkansas to two consecutive Elite Eights.
Key stat: Arkansas outrebounded Kansas 36-29 .
Quotable: “We have really good players. You can’t win at any level — CYO, grade school, high school, college, pro, G-League, national team, unless you have really good players. We have really good players and guys with insane buy-in. Incredible buy-in.” — Arkansas coach Eric Musselman.
Contact Ed Graney at [email protected] Follow @edgraney on Twitter.