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NCAA Tournament: Previewing Michigan’s Elite Eight opponent UCLA

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Florida State v Michigan Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images

So I was wrong.

To be clear, I’m not exactly angry about it. I thought Florida State was the toughest matchup the Michigan men’s basketball team could face in the East Region. The Seminoles were loaded with height and length at all positions, and I wasn’t sure if a Wolverine squad without Isaiah Livers had enough punch to overcome that. See yesterday’s roundtable.

But the way Michigan played Sunday evening, slicing and dicing Florida State out of the Sweet 16, is essentially matchup-proof. The 76-58 win over the Seminoles was probably the Wolverines’ most complete game of the season, and in a world where Gonzaga didn’t exist, it might have been enough to make them favorites to win the national title.

Gonzaga does exist, of course, and Michigan could see them in just five days. But first things first, the Wolverines will be tasked with preventing 11-seed UCLA from becoming the second team in history to go from the First Four to the Final Four.

If Michigan plays the way it did against Florida State, it’s hard to see the Bruins standing a chance. But games like Sunday don’t happen often, and UCLA is a talented squad with a good coach, chock-full of former top-100 recruits who are peaking at the right time. Let’s get to know some of them.

Sophomore Johnny Juzang is the Bruins’ leading scorer, averaging 15.0 points per game on 48 percent shooting inside the arc and 35 percent outside of it. Juzang, a 6-foot-6 guard, is evidence of what a change of scenery can do. The former No. 34 recruit skipped his senior year at Harvard-Westlake, reclassifying to the Class of 2019 to play for John Calipari and Kentucky, but didn’t make much of an impact (2.9 points per game).

Not quite ready for the college game and not quite ready to be that far from home, Juzang headed to Westwood, where he’s blossomed into the player Kentucky certainly wishes he became there. Juzang’s field-goal percentages don’t tell the full story — he’s a deadeye, as evidenced by a free-throw percentage of over 90 — and with his size and scoring package, he’s a worthy leading man for an Elite Eight team.

6-foot-6 sophomore Jaime Jaquez (12.4 ppg, 6.1 rpg) has stepped up as of late as a strong second option. Jaquez hit the dagger in overtime against Alabama in the Sweet 16, a fading 25-footer from the right wing to put UCLA up nine. The former No. 96 recruit is an ultra-efficient shooter who can create for himself a little bit and maybe take over if the moment’s right.

The Bruins have cornered the market on athletic 6-foot-6 scoring wings whose first names begin with ‘J’. Jules Bernard, a 6-foot-6 junior, averages 10.7 points and 5.0 rebounds per game. His statistical profile is very similar to Jaquez’s: the former’s offensive rating, per KenPom, is 117.2 and Bernard’s is 113.5. Jaquez is 35-of-88 from the three-point range this year, Bernard is 37-of-92. Jaquez’s free-throw rate, per KenPom, is 38.0, Bernard’s is 37.3.

Tyger Campbell (10.2 ppg, 5.4 apg), a 5-foot-11 sophomore, is UCLA’s point guard. While a 25 percent shooter from outside, Campbell, who had the third-highest assist rate in the Pac-12 per KenPom, is the Bruins’ offensive engine. He takes care of the ball (just 56 turnovers in 30 games this season) and gets it to UCLA’s scorers while occasionally chipping in himself.

The fifth member of the Bruins’ starting five is junior Cody Riley, who at 6-foot-9 is a bit short for a starting center, but more than makes up for it with his physical 255-pound frame. Averaging 10.0 points and 5.4 rebounds per game, Riley’s not going to stretch the floor or put it on the deck: he’s an old-school bowling ball who rebounds well and scores when needed. Riley’s importance isn’t just about his numbers — he’s UCLA’s only big ahead of 6-foot-9 freshman Mac Etienne and 6-foot-9 sophomore Kenneth Nwuba. (Jalen Hill, who averaged 6.1 points and 5.5 rebounds per game, has been out since February due to personal issues.)

Etienne, a four-star recruit who averages 2.8 points and 3.1 rebounds per game, didn’t join the team until January after reclassifying from the 2021 class. Nwuba played 16 minutes in UCLA’s opening round game against BYU, grabbing three offensive rebounds. Neither really played against Abilene Christian or Alabama, and if Riley has to sit for any reason, the Bruins are more likely to go small off the bench.

To do so, they’ll employ some combination of wings David Singleton (4.9 ppg), Jake Kyman (3.2 ppg) and Jaylen Clark (2.6 ppg). Singleton, a junior, and Clark, a freshman, are both former Top-100 recruits. Singleton shoots 47 percent from deep and knocked down three treys against Alabama, while Clark is a more athletic presence — he grabbed four offensive boards against the Tide. Kyman shoots 35 percent from downtown, and his playing time has been a bit less consistent as of late than that of Clark and Singleton.

UCLA can stroke it. The Bruins are 34th in the nation in 3-point shooting, per KenPom, and are hitting 40 percent of their attempts so far in the tournament. They don’t shoot that many, though, as they’re just 296th in the country in percentage of shots from outside. Their big guns — Juzang, Jaquez and Bernard — can catch it and shoot it, but the offense is more predicated on them creating off the dribble and inside the arc. Either way, UCLA is 11th in offensive efficiency per KenPom. (On defense, they’re 55th).

A team made up of players like Juzang, Jaquez and Bernard might conjure up images of a free-flowing, fast-paced team that likes to go bombs away, but that’s not UCLA. Per KenPom, they’re the 11th-slowest team in the nation per adjusted tempo. That deliberate pace works for them, though, as they rarely turn the ball over — just 28 giveaways for the entire NCAA Tournament.

Michigan should be able to match up with Campbell well, presumably with Smith. Eli Brooks could have a tough task, as Juzang, Jaquez and Bernard are all adept at rising and hitting pull-up jumpers. Franz Wagner and Chaundee Brown, with their length and size, might be better equipped to slow the trio.

Riley, if he’s able to lower his center of gravity and use his frame, could have some success inside against Dickinson despite giving up a few inches. He’ll have to do so carefully, however, considering UCLA’s lack of post depth. Michigan probably will like that matchup for that reason. On the flip side, Brandon Johns could have a tougher matchup, as whoever he’s assigned to will task his ability to close out on the perimeter and midrange.