Yes, the above cartoon is pretty harsh. But is it wrong? After eight games, it’s only become more difficult to ascertain just where UCLA men’s basketball is headed this season. On one hand, the Bruins just knocked off No. 1 Kentucky, an 87-77 win that stands as the most impressive of Steve Alford’s short tenure. On the other, they’re only three weeks removed from a season-opening loss to Monmouth.
1. The Bruins are back on track to make the NCAA Tournament. Losing to Monmouth to open the season was the type of game that would have pushed a team to the wrong side of the bubble. Upsetting the top-ranked Wildcats on national TV undoes all of that damage. UCLA still needs to take care of business the rest of the way, of course: Beating every nonconference opponent left other than Gonzaga or North Carolina would help, as would matching last year’s 11-7 record in conference. There’s still a chance that beat Kentucky was an anomaly, but Thursday night showed that there’s plenty of talent to work with on this roster. Just as importantly, they’re no longer fighting an uphill battle in terms of national perception.
2. Steve Alford deserves credit for the game plan. Kentucky had looked as impressive as any team in college basketball, having gone 635 days since losing its last regular-season game. Strip away that context, though, and no one would have picked the Wildcats as the superior team at Pauley Pavilion. UCLA went to an effective man defense that kept UK out of the paint and forced them to settle their jump shots — the team’s most glaring weakness. Continue reading →
Proving almost every bracket projection wrong, the Bruins earned a No. 11-seed in the NCAA Tournament’s South Region. They will play on Thursday in Louisville against No. 6 Southern Methodist, helmed by former UCLA head coach Larry Brown.
Their spot had looked increasingly tenuous as CBS’ selection show rolled on, as bubble team after bubble team flashed up on the screen: Indiana, LSU, Georgia, Boise State. But it turned out that the Bruins had done enough to impress the NCAA selection committee.
“One of the tougher the committee has had to make,” said Scott Barnes, the NCAA selection committee chair. “We tracked UCLA over the last month or so, felt like they were gaining steam. … I think the eye test was a plus in putting them in the field.”
The surprise bid comes just two days after it lost to Arizona in the Pac-12 Tournament semifinal. A win over the Wildcats would have almost been enough to move UCLA (20-13) safely off the bubble — but it turns out that even the 70-64 loss, as good a showing as anyone expected, was already enough.
If those hold, the Bruins will likely end up being one of the first four teams out, which would give them a No. 1 seed in the NIT and a few more home games at Pauley Pavilion. A little more than a week ago, Norman Powell was emphatic about wanting to continue playing if the Big Dance wasn’t an option.
“Yeah, of course,” he said. “I feel like we have a high chance, but if we don’t, playing in the NIT — you can’t knock it,” the senior said. “Reggie Miller played in the NIT. Great players have played in the NIT. It’s not like, ‘Oh, you guys suck. You guys didn’t make the tournament.’ It’s a chance to extend the season. We play in the NIT, we’re going to go on just like it’s the NCAA Tournament and try and win that.”
The consensus in the locker room more or less followed that line of thinking after Friday’s loss to Arizona in the Pac-12 Tournament semifinal.
After five straight losses, UCLA is sitting with an 8-7 record and in serious danger of missing the NCAA tournament. Junior center Tony Parker admitted as much on Tuesday, shortly before the Bruins practiced at Pauley Pavilion.
“That’s definitely in question,” Parker said. “You have to win games to make the tournament. That’s a big-time thing for us. We have to win games to make the tournament. … We have a chance. We have a shot. It’s early. The line is going to draw in every conference pretty soon.”
He left the window open for his team by citing Oregon’s stretch of eight losses in 10 games before eventually winning eight straight and earning a No. 7 seed in March Madness.
No. 11 Minnesota over No. 6 UCLA might be the most popular upset pick in the whole NCAA field. The Gophers may have lost 11 of their last 16 games, but the Bruins haven’t inspired much national confidence after falling to Oregon without Jordan Adams.