If you’re going to go to the NCAA Tournament, you might as well play the most storied program in college basketball history.
That’s exactly what’s in front of the UNC Asheville men’s basketball team after they received a No. 15 seed in the West Regional and will face second-seeded UCLA in Sacramento, California, at 10:55 p.m. on Thursday.
The matchup pits two of the hottest teams in college basketball.
“I know they’ve won 18 out of 19, I just saw,” UCLA coach Mick Cronin, whose team went 29-5 and has won 12 of 13, said of the Bulldogs on Sunday. “I try to watch all those championship games, but I didn’t get to see there’s.”
UNCA’s last win, a 77-73 comeback victory over Campbell on March 5, gave the Bulldogs the Big South Conference Tournament title and an NCAA berth, the school’s first since 2016 and fifth overall.
Four years after going 4-27 in coach Mike Morrell’s first year with the team, the Bulldogs set a school record for wins, going 27-7 overall and 16-2 in the Big South.
UNCA did it with a veteran team led by sixth-year guard Tajion Jones and Drew Pember, who was named the Big South’s top player and defensive player of the year this season.
“No one’s more deserving of that moment than (Tajion),” Pember said after the team won the Big South Tournament. “He was here when they won four games. He helped me come here. He’s been clutch all year. And a lot of the times people think I’m going to get the ball; I want (him) to get the ball. He’s been phenomenal, and (it’s) just a testament to his hard work and what he’s been doing all year for us.”
The teams play at a similar pace — UNC Asheville ranks 102nd in Division I at 75.0 points per game, while UCLA is 119th at 74.2 — but the Bruins are one of the top defensive teams in the nation, allowing just 60.1 points per game to rank tied for fifth in the country. The Bulldogs, meanwhile, allow 68.6 (132nd).
UCLA, however, will be without the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year, Jaylen Clark.
The junior guard — who was tied for fifth in steals per game (2.6) in the nation, third on the Bruins in scoring (13.0) and second in rebounding (6.0) — suffered a torn Achilles tendon in UCLA’s regular season finale and is out.
Cronin could also be without Pac-12 Freshman of the Year Adem Bona, the 6-foot-10 forward who hurt his shoulder injury in the Bruins’ conference tournament semifinal loss on Saturday. While his status is uncertain, he’s the only UCLA player measuring taller than 6-foot-7 who logs 20-plus minutes per game.
That could present a problem in guarding Pember, the 6-foot-10 forward whose 720 points (21.2 per game) were sixth in Division I this season. The senior, who transferred from Tennessee two years ago, led the nation in free throws attempted (314) and made (262) — an 83.4% success rate that gives the Knoxville, Tennessee, native a way to score even when his shot isn’t dropping.
Pember is also a threat from 3-point range, making 37.3% of his shots from beyond the arc this season. But it’s Jones who has the ability to cause fits for opponents with his outside shooting.
The 6-foot-5 guard is the top 3-point shooter in the tournament, making 45.6% of his long-range shots, and his 15 points per game average is deceptive — he’s scored 30 three times this season, making eight 3-pointers in two of those games.
UNCA will need both Jones and Pember — who has two 40-point games this season, including a school-record 48 on Jan. 25 against Presbyterian — to be on their games to pull off an upset against the Bruins. That’s because only three other Bulldogs — Fletcher Abee (8.1 points per game), Nick McMullen (8.0) and Jamon Battle (6.6) — have scored 20 points in a game this year, and each did it just once.
UCLA, meanwhile, has a wealth of experience to lean on. The senior trio of Jaime Jaquez Jr., David Singleton and Tyger Campbell were all part of the Bruins’ surprise run to the Final Four two seasons ago as an 11th seed, and they see this year as their own “Last Dance.”
“This is one final chance to make something happen,” said 6-foot-6 guard Jaquez, the Pac-12 Player of the Year who leads UCLA in scoring (17.3) and rebounding (8.1). “Our backs are against the wall, we feel like, and we’re embracing it. We take everything that comes with it.”
Morrell has experience himself, going to the tournament nine times as an assistant, but this will be his first as a head coach and something new for his team.
“You want them to take it all in. You want them to enjoy it,” he told WLOS on Sunday of waiting to find out their destination and opponent. “That’s a feeling they’ll never forget. … We’ll start our prep tomorrow.”
If the Bulldogs were to pull off an upset of the Bruins, they would face the winner of No. 7 Northwestern and No. 10 Boise State on Sunday. The West Regional Sweet 16 games will be held in Las Vegas on March 23.