As one of a handful of coaches in the nation that has played both the Gonzaga Bulldogs and UCLA Bruins this year, Montana Lady Grizzlies coach Robin Selvig's opinion certainly holds some weight in previewing the game.
"It will be a battle of styles," said Selvig after Montana's 55-47 loss on Saturday. "They are totally, totally different. You got to get up and down the floor, shoot the heck out of it. Gonzaga and UCLA rely on not letting anybody get up and down the floor and shoot the heck out of it. I think there's a real contrast in styles."
However, while there is certainly a visceral difference in how differently these teams play, Selvig also alluded to some significant similarities that might play out in tonight's game.
Although UCLA is more widely known for their defense, Gonzaga's discipline forced Notre Dame into 27 turnovers earlier in the season and was only .03 points per possession behind UCLA in terms of what they allowed opponents. They post almost identical offensive rebounding percentages and differentials with opponents. And perhaps most importantly, although Gonzaga typically plays at a faster pace than UCLA, UCLA has the athletes to run and can force teams into inefficient play at a fast pace.
"They can run," said Gonzaga coach Kelly Graves yesterday. "They choose not to all the time, but they can actually transition very well. But I'm really looking forward to seeing what kind of style wins out tomorrow because I think whoever gets their tempo going has a chance of winning.
So to be as specific as possible, this isn't the type of mutually exclusive contrast in styles that might take place between an interior-oriented team and perimeter-oriented team in which neither team is capable of playing on the other's terms. To the contrary, there are striking similarities between the two teams that make this game more a matter of preferences.
"This team is familiar with teams who like to run the basketball," said UCLA coach Nikki Caldwell after the Bruins' win against Montana. "Look at playing against Stanford or even Oregon, who was leading the nation in scoring. There are some things we do defensively to counteract that because we definitely don't want to have our opponents running the ball right at us because that is what we like to do."
So ultimately, what might matter most in this game is who establishes an advantage within those points of similarity.
3. Who can play more efficiently at a high pace?
Obviously, Gonzaga's pace is fueled by their point guard and team leader Courtney Vandersloot.
"One person really makes Gonzaga go," said Selvig on Saturday. "They've got a lot of good players, but Vandersloot's a unique player. She makes everybody better and things rest in her hands."
As described in an earlier SBN Seattle feature about Vandersloot, she has a "game awareness" that makes her especially dangerous in transition because she's a player with the confidence to make creative risks that others just can't. The key, for her as a player and the Bulldogs as a team, is that she can take those risks efficiently and that makes the entire team better.
"They are one of the best running teams we have seen in a long time," said Caldwell, whose team also played Notre Dame which can run but does so with a lower shooting efficiency and turnover differential which makes them less efficient overall. "There are a lot of teams who run the ball, but they are very efficient running the basketball so we got to make sure defensively we are able to set our pressure so we can make baskets."
So one significant challenge for UCLA will be running the ball and scoring efficiently. One thing they don't have - in addition to a point guard like Vandersloot - is the 3-point shooting ability of Gonzaga. In a fast break scenario with Vandersloot able to break down a defense and find shooters, that makes a huge difference. Unlike Saturday's game in which UCLA missed out on easy scoring opportunities, they'll have to capitalize to beat Gonzaga and whereas Gonzaga relies on converting with good spacing in the half court, UCLA relies heavily on transition points off turnovers
2. How will Gonzaga's secondary ball handlers respond to UCLA's defense?
Similarly, the challenge for Gonzaga at the likely pace of this game will be how everyone but Vandersloot responds to UCLA's chaotic defensive schemes.
"We got to look vertical and diagonal," said Graves. "We got to do a lot of different things and give them different looks. Fortunately, we have skilled players who can pass, catch, and make plays in the open court. I think that will be a benefit to us. The bottom line is it's going to come down to Courtney and how well she can handle that kind of pressure."
Vandersloot will definitely be critical to handling that pressure, but this what UCLA likes to do is simply keep teams off-balance and they are especially adept at doing that when players other than a primary ball handler has the ball - they will try to make an entire team uncomfortable by forcing players not used to making plays to make plays. Fortunately for Gonzaga against Iowa, Janelle Bekkering and Katelan Redmon came up big for them, combining for nine assists and only two turnovers. So their efficiency against UCLA will likely play as big a role in the game as Vandersloot's efficiency as the primary distributor.
1. Who will win on the offensive boards?
At the end of the game, offensive rebounding percentage could stand out as the most significant statistic. Both team's get about 43 percent of the available offensive rebounds and only allow around 32 percent. Head to head, somebody is going to have to win that.
"We'll have to have a great effort on the boards," said Graves. "I think that is one of the two or three keys to the game."
However, how the two teams get those rebounds is different - while UCLA relies heavily on their frontcourt players for offensive rebounds, Gonzaga is more of finesse team that needs contributions from across the roster to do well. The challenge is contending with UCLA's athleticism and length, which is no simple task.
"They have the kind of athletes and with certain skill sets that are a little bit more prone toward great defense, physical play," said Graves. "We are not blessed with a ton of size with those big type of players that can eat up space inside. We're built on speed and we have a good point guard."