UCLA played its usual brand of smothering defense in a win over North Carolina Asheville in the first round. It’s no surprise they bottled up a mid-major program to get March Madness started. However, the real test begins against Northwestern. The Wildcats scored 75 points in a first-round win against Boise State, and they have legitimate firepower out of the backcourt.
With Jaylen Clark out for the Bruins, it’ll be interesting to see how UCLA’s defense holds up against better competition. Clark was one of the best defenders in college basketball, and he had the ability to check guards and smaller wings. Without him, the Bruins don’t have the same defensive versatility. He was also a reliable third offensive option.
Without Clark in the fold, the Bruins are going to have a tougher time defending Northwestern’s Boo Buie, Chase Audige and Ty Berry, who combined to score 55 points against Boise State. UCLA has defensive perimeter options, but Northwestern is deep with contributors and the Bruins being down one isn’t ideal.
Northwestern is 8-1 against the spread when playing away from home this season. The Wildcats aren’t going to be too uncomfortable in this neutral-court setting, and some of their gunners might embrace the situation. Buie is capable of swinging a tournament game with his ability to score.
UCLA does have Jaime Jaquez Jr. to lean on, and his ability to execute in the mid-post area is a valuable safety blanket for the Bruins. That’s something coach Mick Cronin can always count on, and Northwestern doesn’t really have big men that can guard him — or tire him out on the other end of the floor. Jaquez’s ability to score inside the three-point line could make all the difference. Both teams like to play slow, but UCLA is better at executing in the half court because of Jaquez’s patience.
Perhaps the Bruins’ ability to win grind-it-out games will force Northwestern coach Chris Collins to open things up more. Northwestern could try three-point shots and hope for the best. They’re better off doing something like that than playing to UCLA’s strengths. However, the oddsmakers set a low total on this one, so a perimeter-shooting strategy might not be realistic.
How to watch UCLA vs. Northwestern
When: Saturday, 5:40 p.m. PDT
TV / Streaming: TNT / marchmadness.com; Paramount+
Odds for UCLA vs. Northwestern
Spread: UCLA -8