From the start, the UCLA Bruins were labeled as the team that didn’t belong. The awful losses to top-ranked Kentucky, North Carolina, and Pac-12 foe Utah in the first half of the regular season were seen as reason enough to keep head coach Steve Alford’s team out of the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2012.
Yet now, after two straight unexpected victories over SMU and UAB, the Bruins are back in the Sweet 16 for the second straight year and their appearance shouldn’t come as much of a surprise.
There is at least one “gimme” factor. UCLA does have the highly unpredictable nature of the tournament to thank for their success. As the No. 11 seed in the South Region, UCLA is the lowest seeded squad left in the tournament, but outlasted the likes of No. 1 Villanova, No. 2 Virginia, No. 3 Baylor, No. 2 Kansas, and conference foe No. 8 Oregon. The next lowest seeds left after the Bruins are No. 8 NC State and No. 7s Wichita State and Michigan State.
Another factor to consider is how low of an opinion the rest the country and the NCAA Selection Committee had for the Pac-12. The Bruins finished 22-13 overall, with an 11-7 conference mark, good for fourth in the Pac-12. But they squeaked in, right behind Pac-12 leaders Arizona, Utah and Oregon, claiming home victories over the Utes and the Ducks.
And now the Pac-12 is the second-most represented conference left in the tournament, exceeded only by the ACC’s five schools in the Sweet 16.
But this isn’t a UCLA squad that should be defined by the schools it shares a conference with. The Bruins have found the right mix of rebounding and excellent guard play at the right time. They entered the season with a talented roster that is playing quality basketball when it matters.
UCLA finished 26th in the nation in rebounding, and flashed that low-post grit against No. 14 UAB, winning the boards battle 41-26, including 15 on the offensive glass. They also shot better than 60 percent from the field against the Blazers. Though UCLA was aided by a questionable goaltending call against sixth-seeded Southern Methodist, the Bruins were able to force the Mustangs into poor shooting (36.4 percent), and Bryce Alford was exceptional from beyond the arc, converting nine of his 11 attempts.
Freshman forward Kevon Looney was second in the conference with 9.2 rebounds per game, and he’s racked up 21 rebounds in two tournament games so far, with a double-double of 10 points and 11 boards versus UAB. And junior forward Tony Parker put together arguably the best performance of the tournament so far, with 28 points, 12 rebounds and three blocks against the Blazers, easily eclipsing his season averages of 11.4 points and 6.6 rebounds.
The backcourt of senior and leading scorer Norman Powell and Alford have overrun opponents thus far. Alford's 27 points was the key reason UCLA advanced past SMU, and he followed that up with 22-point, five-assist performance against UAB.
Powell, one of only two seniors on the squad, has played off the ball a bit but has still managed to score 19 and 15 points in the two victories while shaking off eight turnovers. But he’s doing the little things, notching 10 total rebounds and seven assists, allowing Alford to stroke it from deep and complementing Parker and Looney on the boards.
It’s that kind of role playing that could greatly serve the Bruins against No. 2 seed Gonzaga (34-2, 17-1 WCC) on Friday.
UCLA fell to the Bulldogs 87-74 on Dec. 13, despite Alford’s 23 points and Looney putting up 14 points, eight rebounds and four assists. Gonzaga was stellar at times, knocking down 58.5 percent of its field goals and going 9-for-19 from deep, with forward Kyle Wiltjer recording 24 points and four rebounds. The game perfectly summed up the Bulldogs best attributes. Ranking 10th in the country in points per game, and first in field-goal percentage, Gonzaga looked like a team that couldn’t be stopped.
The matchup figures to be the toughest the Bruins have faced since that 83-44 nightmare loss to Kentucky, and though Steve Alford acknowledged his team’s misgivings to the Los Angeles Times, he believes UCLA can continue its run.
"We've got weaknesses, obviously," Steve Alford said. "But if we can get tough, if we can really get tough and a little bit of nastiness to us, I think you'll see us, that water is going to rise, that tide is going to rise with this team. And that's going to be fun to watch."
Next Opponent: Gonzaga (No. 2 seed)
Date: Friday, March 27
Time: 7:15 p.m. ET
Where: NRG Stadium in Houston
Betting Odds: Gonzaga favored by 8.5 points