After both the Bruins and Wildcats survived scares in opening action of the NCAA Tournament, UCLA and Villanova (-2) now face off to decide which school makes the Sweet 16. Seeded third in the East, 'Nova found themselves trailing by 10 at halftime to 14-seed American before turning it on in the second half for an 80-67 win. For No. 6 UCLA, it took surviving a last second shot by Virginia Commonwealth to stay alive.
The first full day of March Madness lived up to the hype. The top seeds laid waste to their hapless opponents, while those in the lower half of the bracket had their work cut out for them. One of those teams was No. 6 UCLA, who needed a last-second defensive stop from point guard Darren Collison to beat No. 11 Virginia Commonwealth 65-64.
VCU still beat the betting odds as an 8½-point favorite. As for the Tournament bracket, now President Obama and I have one more thing in common: We both had the Rams to advance to the second round. Instead, it will be the Bruins facing the No. 3 Villanova Wildcats, who had considerable trouble early against the No. 14 American U. Eagles (+15) on Thursday before storming back to win 80-67. This should be the most entertaining of Saturday’s eight second-round games, although it’s also the first with an early 1:05 p.m. Eastern tip-off.
The Wildcats will give UCLA many of the same problems that VCU posed. Both have a strong outside-inside presence; Villanova is powered by point guard Scottie Reynolds (15.7 points per game) and center Dante Cunningham (16.4 points, 7.3 rebounds). Reynolds is the most prolific 3-point shooter on a Villanova team that connects on 36.8 percent of its trey attempts. And although Cunningham is only 6-foot-8, he’s one of the better blockers and rebounders in Division I, plus he gets to the free-throw line on a regular basis.
The Reynolds-Cunningham dyad is supported by key sixth-man Corey Fisher, whose production at the point very closely resembles that of Reynolds on a per-possession basis. Each player had three steals on Thursday against American U, and while both had poor shooting games at a combined 3-of-12, Fisher hit nine of his 10 free-throw attempts as Villanova turned the tide.
UCLA has had issues this year dealing with guards. The Bruins are allowing opponents to hit 36.2 percent from long range, ranking No. 275 out of 344 Division I teams. The Rams went 6-of-15 from the perimeter on Thursday to nearly pull off the upset. On the other side of the coin, the Bruins are an impressive 39.6 percent from behind the arc, including 6-of-12 versus Virginia Commonwealth. This is where the Wildcats can be had – they’re an average defensive team on the perimeter at 33.9 percent against.
The Bruins don’t look like they’ll have to worry too much about the de facto home-court disadvantage, either. They had to travel farther than any other team in the Tournament, while Villanova is conveniently located in the northwest suburbs of Philadelphia. But Thursday’s crowd at the Wachovia Center sided with the underdogs from American U. The Wildcats have now dropped the cash in three straight (all neutral-site affairs) and seven of their last 10.
UCLA’s betting graph is pure rollercoaster. The Bruins have dropped their last two in a row ATS, starting with that 65-55 loss to USC (+6.5) in the Pac-10 tournament. This was after a 4-0-1 ATS run, which followed an 0-4 slide, preceded by another four straight paydays. Sure enough, UCLA’s “consistency” ranking is awful this year: No. 242 in the nation according to Ken Pomeroy’s advanced stats.
Consistency is often a product of turnovers, and freshman Jrue Holiday is in a poor position to be a one-and-done player after scoring 8.5 points per game and posting a 23.1 percent turnover rate. However, the Bruins have better hands in the post with Alfred Aboya (12.5 percent), who also had three steals against VCU. The Wildcats are ranked No. 125 in consistency and have a slight case of the butterfingers, turning the ball over 19.0 percent of the time (No. 87 overall).
This is the first time these two clubs will have met since Feb. 9, 2002, when Villanova beat UCLA 58-57 as a 1-point home chalk. The Over is 9-4 for the Wildcats in their last 13 games; the Bruins were on a 13-1 Over streak to end the regular season, but the Under is 3-0 since. Saturday’s weather forecast calls for a steady barrage of 3-pointers.