What happens when an explosive offense faces off against an elite defense? UCLA is about to find out if its powerful scoring attack can survive 40 minutes of grinding out one possession after another. The second-seeded Bruins face this test against No. 6 Cincinnati on Sunday in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
UCLA (30-4) opened with a 97-80 victory over No. 14 Kent State on Friday. The Bruins are trying to reach the Sweet 16 for the third time in four seasons under head coach Steve Alford. The Bearcats (30-5) advanced out of the first round with a 75-61 victory over No. 11 Kansas State. Cincinnati last reached the Sweet 16 in 2012.
South Region: No. 6 Cincinnati Bearcats (30-5) vs. No. 3 UCLA Bruins (30-4)
When: 9:40 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Where: Golden 1 Center (Sacramento)
Line: UCLA -4
Keys for Cincinnati
Defense is what got the Bearcats here. Teams going up against Cincinnati quickly find out that every possession counts. The Bearcats allow just 60.8 points per game and outscore opponents by 13.7 points per contest.
It's impossible to slow UCLA down completely. Cincinnati needs to focus on making the Bruins work through the entire shot clock on every possession. UCLA is at its best when it can get out and run. If the Bearcats can choke out the transition game and force the Bruins into executing in the half-court, it could lead to rushed shots and poor decisions on the wing by UCLA.
Cincinnati's offense also needs to take some pressure off the defense. Leading scorers Jacob Evans III (13.5 ppg) and Kyle Washington (13.1 ppg) are both capable of making plays inside and outside. If they can find an early rhythm, it will make it easier for the Bearcats to corral UCLA's offense during critical stretches.
Keys for UCLA
With Lonzo Ball at the controls this season, UCLA's offense has blown through defenses with the force of a cascading waterfall. The Bruins lead the nation in scoring with 90.6 points per game. One reason why is Ball's playmaking abilities. The freshman guard averages a NCAA-best 7.6 assists per game. When he arrived at UCLA, he transformed an average offense into something extraordinary overnight.
The Bruins will need Ball at full strength against Cincinnati. They had a scare when he fell and landed awkwardly on his hip late in the first half against Kent State. Ball moved gingerly the rest of the half, but came back and played after halftime. UCLA cannot afford to have him hobbled or limited. A healthy Ball running the show, will help the Bruins counteract the stifling Bearcats defense.
Cincinnati is a strong defensive team that can make life tough for virtually any opponent. Still, UCLA isn't any garden variety run-of-the-mill offense. The Bruins are adept at scoring in all sorts of situations and have proven it time and again this season with big wins over tough competition. Cincinnati does not have enough offensive horsepower to take pressure off its defense and that will ultimately equal another Sweet 16 for UCLA.
Prediction: UCLA 75, Cincinnati 70
— Written by John Coon, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Coon has more than a decade of experience covering sports for different publications and outlets, including The Associated Press, Salt Lake Tribune, ESPN, Deseret News, MaxPreps, Yahoo! Sports and many others. Follow him on Twitter @johncoonsports.
(Top photo courtesy of @UCLAMBB)