Can UCLA and Gonzaga deliver another March Madness classic in Sweet 16?

LAS VEGAS — It was so many years ago now, so many hundreds of games ago, that Gonzaga coach Mark Few can barely recall what happened. Or maybe he’s blocked it out.

“I can’t even barely remember last week or last year,” he said.

But anyone with an appreciation for the drama of the NCAA Tournament and the heartbreak that comes with it can rewind their memory to 2006 in Oakland, California, when national player of the year Adam Morrison was sitting on the ground, arms folded across his knees, unable to stop himself from sobbing.

Gonzaga had blown a 17-point lead that night, losing a Sweet 16 game to UCLA after a mess of mistakes at the end. But even in defeat, it was one of those March moments that helped turn Gonzaga from a Cinderella to one of the most high-profile programs in college basketball.

“I’ve heard a lot about it,” said Gonzaga wing Julian Strawther, who was a mere 3 years old at the time. “I’ve seen highlights and how UCLA came back and played in that game and it was one of those things that kind of slipped right through our hands.”

Of course, Strawther was part of bringing that moment full circle 15 years later. As a freshman reserve for the Zags, he watched teammate Jalen Suggs bank in a running shot from just across halfcourt to beat UCLA in the Final Four — with Morrison there as a radio broadcaster.

It’s rare that two programs who didn’t have much history against each other before that 2006 meeting would end up playing two classic NCAA tournament games and build a bit of a rivalry against each other from afar.

And yet, given that history, we should probably expect something remarkable when they face off again Thursday night in a West regional semifinal with a spot in the Elite Eight on the line.

“I would say there's been a rivalry kind of building up the past couple of years,” said Gonzaga forward Anton Watson. “Every time we play them it's a high-energy game. There's going to be a lot of fans there from both sides. And they really want to beat us and we want to beat them.”

Tyger Campbell's UCLA Bruins and Drew Timme's Gonzaga Bulldogs square off in the 2023 Sweet 16.
Tyger Campbell's UCLA Bruins and Drew Timme's Gonzaga Bulldogs square off in the 2023 Sweet 16.

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What gives this matchup even more juice is that there is significant carryover on both sides from the Final Four game in 2021. For the Bruins, Jaime Jaquez, Tyger Campbell and David Singleton are still around. The Zags still have Watson, Drew Timme and Strawther. That’s an uncommon amount of longevity in this era of college basketball, and yet it gives this matchup even more texture than it would have in a random year.

“I’m sure a lot of people wish it was more like that,” UCLA coach Mick Cronin said. “We're all getting older. And we think about how college basketball was great when (Christian) Laettner and (Bobby) Hurley played together for a long time.”

Because of how much the 2021 game resonated, and because both Cronin and Few knew they’d have good teams coming back in 2022, they agreed on a rematch last season at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. The game didn’t live up to the hype, as Gonzaga rolled to an 83-63 win.

But in a sport where rosters change so much with the transfer portal and with players entering the NBA Draft early, there’s comfort in two familiar rivals facing off for a third straight year with a lot of carryover. The coaches know each other. The players know each other. And the fans understand what they’re going to get from both teams.

“It’s becoming a rivalry,” Strawther said. “It feels like they’re a part of our conference now to see them every year. It’s great for college basketball to have two heavyweights going at it.”

Both Gonzaga and UCLA’s rosters will look very different next year. Hopefully they can deliver one more classic for the next generation of players at those programs to remember.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: UCLA-Gonzaga Sweet 16 matchup could be another NCAA Tournament classic