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UCLA vs. Alabama: Betting strategies for Sweet 16 matchup

UCLA's Mac Etienne, right, celebrates with Kenneth Nwuba in the final moments of the Bruins' win over Abilene Christian.
UCLA’s Mac Etienne, right, celebrates with Kenneth Nwuba in the final moments of the Bruins’ win over Abilene Christian on Monday.
(Mark Humphrey / Associated Press)

UCLA catching fire in the Big Dance reminds of a couple of Steve Lavin-coached teams that advanced beyond their seed level in the Dance (or, for old timers, Larry Brown’s underrated 1980 edition that made a shock run all of the way to the finale vs. Louisville), though in all of those scenarios the Bruins eventually hit a hurdle they couldn’t clear. Is Alabama that similar challenge?

The Crimson Tide certainly have a Final Four-look about them after early-round work including the destruction of Maryland on Monday after blasting through the SEC and the conference tourney in Nashville. Fundamental matchups, however, do not suggest Mick Cronin’s team is at much of a disadvantage, especially on the perimeter, where Nate Oats has been able to use Bama’s length to his advantage. UCLA, however, has good size on the wings with red-hot Johnny Juzang and Jaime Jaquez combining for almost 40 ppg thus far so the Westwood bunch should not be as unnerved by the Tide’s pressure that has helped Bama rank among the nation’s defensive efficiency leaders.

The UCLA men’s basketball team has quickly adapted to its home away from home for the NCAA tournament, even if it’s supposed to be a COVID-19 bubble.

If Cronin has a concern beyond his depth issues (no Chris Smith or Jalen Hill) that were a problem late in the regular season (but not yet an issue in the Dance), it’s how 6-foot-9 Cody Riley can deal with Oats’ small-ball deluxe 6-8 pivot Herbert Jones, whose versatility can cause fits. The Tide’s multi-pronged, well-balanced attack can also fill the bucket from all angles, with three other double-digit scorers besides Jones, and able to do real damage in transition with guards John Petty, Jaden Shackelford, and former Villanova transfer Jahvon Quinerly.

Advancing to the Elite Eight will take quite an effort, but UCLA is certainly capable of keeping this one close and if nothing else continuing the Pac-12’s remarkable March point-spread run (Colorado’s loss to Florida State the only spread setback into this weekend). I like UCLA to stay within the number.

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Pick: UCLA +6.5

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