UCLA vs. Gonzaga: Expect Jules Bernard to Be the X-Factor In Final Four Matchup
Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images. Pictured, from left: Jules Bernard (1) and Johnny Juzang (3).
- The Bruins were never supposed to make it this far, but luck and offense has carried them to the Final Four.
- Now, they face a huge challenge in undefeated Gonzaga, which could be considered one of the best college basketball teams of all time.
- That means players need to step up for UCLA, and Pat McMahon believes Jules Bernard is one of them.
In order for UCLA to be competitive with Gonzaga on Saturday, the Bruins offense must be clicking.
Johnny Juzang put up more than half of the Bruins’ points in the team’s Elite Eight win over Michigan, and his breakout performance in this NCAA Tournament is a major reason why the Bruins have persevered to the Final Four.
Nonetheless, Juzang cannot shoulder the Bruins offense alone. Additional players must step up to help carry the load against the Bulldogs on Saturday.
That’s where junior wing Jules Bernard comes in.
Bernard is UCLA’s third-leading scorer (10.5 points per game), and saw his role expand significantly after senior guard Chris Smith sustained a season-ending injury in late December.
He can occasionally get lost in a crowded Bruins perimeter that also includes top-two scorers Juzang and Jaime Jaquez Jr. However, Bernard is one of the best 3-point shooters on the team (39.4%) — and when he get’s hot, it’s usually a good result for the Bruins.
Bernard’s Tournament So Far
During UCLA’s improbable five-game NCAA Tournament run, Bernard’s scoring (10.8 points per game) has been about on par with his season average.
He managed only 10 total points during two slow-paced games against Abilene Christian and Michigan. The Bruins rode their defense in those victories, holding both the Wildcats and Wolverines to under 50 points.
However, a slow, defensive battle is not in the cards against Gonzaga. The Bulldogs rank first in the country in adjusted offensive efficiency (AdjO) and rank sixth in adjusted tempo, per KenPom.
The Zags will score, and they will push the pace. So, it’s up to the Bruins offense to try to keep up.
Among UCLA’s five NCAA Tournament opponents thus far, No. 2 seed Alabama stands out as the most similar team to Gonzaga. Bernard was huge for the Bruins in their 88-78 overtime win over the Crimson Tide in the Sweet 16. He tied Jacquez Jr. for the team lead in points (17), hit four shots from beyond the arc and sunk all five of his free throw attempts.
Bernard was also key in the Michigan State and BYU wins, chipping in 11 and 16 points, respectively.
Bernard’s Impact on the Bruins’ Success
When the Bruins are at their best offensively, Bernard is usually a big part of it. The following numbers illustrate Bernard’s importance to the success of UCLA’s offense.
- UCLA is 12-1 straight up (SU) and 10-3 against the spread (ATS) when it has scored 76 or more points this season. In those 13 games, Bernard has averaged 12.5 points — 2.0 points higher than his season average.
- Bernard has scored 15 or more points in nine games this year. The Bruins are 7-2 SU and 6-3 ATS in that game sample.
- UCLA is 4-1 SU and 3-2 ATS in the five games when Bernard has made three or more 3-pointers.
Conversely, when Bernard is unable to find his rhythm on offense, the Bruins typically struggle. In UCLA’s nine losses, Bernard averaged 9.0 points per game, shot 42.4% from the floor and just 28.6% from 3.
Hanging tough with Gonzaga is an incredibly difficult task that very few teams have been able to pull off. In fact, only five opponents have limited Gonzaga’s margin of victory to 14 points or fewer:
- Nov. 26: Gonzaga 102, Kansas 90
- Dec. 2: Gonzaga 87, West Virginia 82
- Dec. 19: Gonzaga 99, Iowa 88
- Feb. 8: Gonzaga 82, BYU 71
- Feb. 25: Gonzaga 89, Santa Clara 75
Each of those five games was high-scoring, with the losing team averaging 81.8 points.
The current spread as of writing? 14 points.
In order for UCLA to cover the spread and ink its name as the sixth team to hold Gonzaga within 14 points, it is imperative that the Bruins eclipse their season average of 72.8 points per game. They’ll need to score at least 80 points to have any shot of winning, which will require everyone to show up offensively.
Bernard’s scoring is especially important for a couple of reasons:
(1) Juzang Will Draw Significant Defensive Attention
The Bulldogs’ main focus on the wing will obviously be Juzang — especially coming off of his 28-point effort vs. Michigan in the Elite 8. The Zags will smother Juzang in order to deter him from getting many clean looks.
This means there will be opportunities for players like Bernard and Jaquez Jr. to punish the Bulldogs by burying shots from deep. They have to be willing to take those shots, and they must convert them at a high rate in order to keep the defense honest.
(2) UCLA’s Best Shooters Must Deliver Stellar Performances
Bernard boasts the best 3-point shooting percentage among UCLA’s starting lineup, just a hair ahead of Jaquez Jr. (39.3%). Against a team as good as Gonzaga, it is crucial to have a strong performance from beyond the arc.
If UCLA’s top shooters can’t get it going from 3, then there’s very little chance it can keep the game close. Plus, if Bernard has the hot hand and starts to draw extra attention, it would open up the floor for the Bruins’ play-makers, Jaquez Jr. and point guard Tyger Campbell, to generate some offense.
If the Bruins can get four players in double figures, and if Bernard can deliver 15 or more points, then I like their chances to keep it close. Otherwise, it will be a long night for head coach Mick Cronin and the Bruins.