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Why Gonzaga, UCLA and Syracuse should be concerned

Multiple teams entered Saturday with key opportunities. Some of those squads succeeded, while others ended the night facing real concerns about their futures.

Here are the teams that should be concerned after Saturday’s games:

Cameron Johnson led North Carolina with 25 points on Saturday. Gerry Broome/AP Photo

Gonzaga Bulldogs

The Bulldogs entered their 103-90 loss at North Carolina on Saturday without a complete roster. Both Killian Tillie (12.9 points per game, 48 percent from the 3-point line in 2017-18) and Geno Crandall (1.3 SPG) missed Saturday’s game with ankle and wrist injuries, respectively. But a Gonzaga team that beat Duke in the Maui Invitational has displayed a porous defense throughout the season.

Since the team’s win over Arizona in the Maui Invitational last month, Gonzaga has surrendered 82.8 points per game. North Carolina made 55 percent of its shots outside the paint on Saturday, per ESPN Stats & Info. The Bulldogs have a fleet of playmakers, but a Gonzaga team that started the day ranked first in adjusted offensive efficiency on KenPom.com has failed to play with the defensive discipline that fueled its predecessors.

Gonzaga’s rise from mid-major king to perennial national power is tied to its defensive ascent. The Bulldogs have finished within the top 30 in adjusted defensive efficiency on KenPom.com the past six seasons, a stretch that featured an Elite Eight run in 2015 and an appearance in the national title game in 2017.

They’ve lost that defensive mojo. Before Saturday, Gonzaga had not allowed 100-plus points in regulation since a 2007 road loss to Virginia.

This is unlike Mark Few’s program. Yes, the eventual returns of Tillie and Crandall should help. But the team’s defensive lapses have followed the Bulldogs all season. Those problems cost them a neutral-site win when they squandered a late lead against Tennessee last weekend in Phoenix, and they were never competitive Saturday against North Carolina, which made 52 percent of its 3-pointers.

Gonzaga won’t compete for a national title unless the team addresses its defensive problems.

UCLA Bruins

If you’re hanging out near Westwood on Sunday and you see a plane hovering above the UCLA campus, don’t be alarmed. It’s probably just a wealthy, frustrated alumnus rolling out another anti-Steve Alford banner.

The Bruins of UCLA suffered a 74-72 loss to the Bruins of Belmont on Saturday at Pauley Pavilion. How exactly did the Bruins lose? By getting confused on defense off Kevin McClain’s backdoor cut that led to the game-winning layup. UCLA has been a below-average defensive team throughout Alford’s tenure. That’s why Saturday’s loss summed up the entire Alford era and the frustrations of UCLA fans who have vociferously encouraged the school’s brass to find a new leader.

  • Villanova pushed Kansas to the final second of the game, but the Jayhawks withstood some sloppy play to come out with the win.

This ho-hum UCLA squad, which has made just 61.1 percent of its free throws (335th) this season, could still win a weak Pac-12. But the team just lost to a Belmont squad that entered the season without two of its top-four scorers. This is a Belmont Bruins squad that surrendered 100 points to UW-Green Bay earlier this season.

Now, Belmont is a great program. But it’s fair to expect UCLA, a team with a top-three recruiting class (Shareef O’Neal and Tyger Campbell are out for the season with injuries) to win a home game against Rick Byrd’s squad.

Alford’s buyout is $3.6 million, a reasonable sum. He has been the Undertaker throughout his time in Westwood, holding on to his job even when it appeared UCLA would make a move. Perhaps that will happen again this season.

But the heat on his seat intensified after Saturday’s home loss.

Syracuse Orange

Syracuse is Syracuse. The program owns a piece of property on the bubble. That’s the Orange’s home. It’s where they’re most comfortable.

A week after squeezing by Georgetown, Syracuse lost to Old Dominion 68-62 on Saturday at the Carrier Dome. Last season, Syracuse reached the Sweet 16 after securing an 11-seed following an 8-10 finish in ACC play.

Well, here the Orange are again. Jim Boeheim’s squad has losses to UConn, Oregon and Old Dominion — three teams that could miss the NCAA tournament — before the start of ACC play. With another middle-of-the-pack finish in the league, Syracuse could enter Selection Sunday without any guarantees. Again.

The Orange might need a midseason trade if things don’t improve.

After missing early action with an ankle injury, Frank Howard has made just six of his 29 3-point attempts. Oshae Brissett, who averaged 17.0 PPG in the NCAA tournament last season, has made just 42 percent of his shots inside the arc this season. The team has made less than 30 percent of its shots beyond the arc.

After Saturday, all signs point to another rocky year for the Syracuse Orange. But, it seems, that’s their preference.

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