UCLA, the team that shouldn’t have made the tournament, is going to the Sweet 16.
And it has taken good fortune, or luck, or karma—the wheels of the great magnet aligning with the program for the last week—to bring it to fruition. But here they stand.
The whole brouhaha began when the Bruins got into the tournament field, which stunned almost everyone, including the Bruins. CBS's Doug Gottlieb was one of the rare analysts without a strong opinion.
That flash pile of tinder was ignited when the NCAA Selection Committee cited the dreaded eye test as the grounds on which UCLA was found worthy of the Dance. There were other teams that had better raw numbers than the Bruins, many said, and a fury swept over the land.
I remember a similar committee saying something like that about Ohio State during the College Football Playoff selection process. No, it wasn’t so much similar as much as it was exactly the same. Ohio State looked like a playoff team to the wise ones who knew what they were looking at, and so they were in.
And the same group howled, and there was grotesque rage directed toward the Buckeyes and it went off Ohio State like water on a duck's back. If anything, it fueled them. Then, they won the national championship by throttling Alabama and Oregon and cared even less about what the sporting mob had to say about their team.
Following the same vein of gold for the Bruins, on the first Thursday of the greatest gauntlet in sports, 14-seed Alabama-Birmingham knocked off 3-seed Iowa State, a team that always seems ripe for an agonizing March upset. The Bruins went from the expected, and deserved, low-seed meat grinder through the tournament’s best teams, to a potential Sweet 16 gateway game against the Blazers, a squad they'd already beat over Thanksgiving at the Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas.
In the Bruins’ last second win over Southern Methodist in their opening round game, knowing UAB was waiting, they got the benefit of a properly called goaltending that probably should be re-evaluated by the NCAA's rules committee. If I was a religious school and had a call like that go against me I’d search deeply for the answer to what I'd done to bring on such wrath from the Deity. It certainly sent down another wave of anti-UCLA malice over the Tournament.
But what do you want UCLA to do about it? Attack the referee who made the call and demand that he take the three points off the board? SMU had every opportunity to win the game, including two wide open shots after the goaltending threw them behind the eight-ball. The Mustangs bricked both, the horn sounded, and UCLA won 60-59. C’est la vie.
Then, on Saturday, UCLA used their better players to dominate an otherwise game Blazer’s team. UAB couldn’t have played much better than it did. The dragon’s buried 12 three-pointers, shot 44-percent from the floor and scored 75 points. It was just that UCLA countered with 60-percent shooting, had big men in Tony Parker and Kevon Looney that the Blazers couldn’t check, and scored 92 points.
UCLA was lucky to play UAB and not Iowa State. If you’re expecting an apology for that you are going to be left wanting. Sometimes it bounces your way in sports, and sometimes it doesn’t. Just ask anyone
So, was the committee right about UCLA looking like a tournament-caliber team? Based on the first two games I’d say their judgement has been validated. Even had UCLA lost to SMU by a bucket, more than one analyst had the Mustangs as a dark horse capable of making a deep run. The Bruins ran out to a big lead against SMU, then scored their way back from a daunting late-game deficit, and were right there at the end to accept their fate.
Maybe those other teams should have been in over UCLA, I’m certainly not saying they didn’t play well enough. But the Bruins got the tap on the shoulder, and so far they’ve answered the bell.
This Bruins team is not—unless their run of Leprechaun-like luck holds—going to win the national championship like Ohio State did. But they can show out and finish this season on their own terms, win or lose. These last rounds are about the players and the work they did to reach this point. It's about the senior, Norman Powell, who has given four years of effort and energy and enthusiasm to the program. It’s about a group that looked to all the world like dead men walking in November and December but never quit on each other or their coach.
All of the rest—the haters, the naysayers, the mob—is not the Bruin’s business.
It’s either Iowa or Gonzaga in the round of 16 and sweet souls of mercury is that something. Plenty of Iowa people, not just fans but columnists and alumni, have a sort of fatwa out against current-UCLA, and former-Hawkeye coach Steve Alford. It is one of the nastiest feuds in all of college sports. I am not going to touch that crate of dynamite because it’s dark and dry and I don’t like deadly explosions when I’m in the room.
The other possibility is Gonzaga. The Zags beat UCLA in Los Angeles earlier this season, but the last time these schools met in the tournament it was something to remember. It was a spring afternoon in 2006 and Gonzaga’s co-national player of the year sat collapsed center-court in a puddle of his own tears as Bruins danced in jubilation around him.
The Bulldogs had led by 17 points in the first half. They had led by nine points with under three minutes to play. Then, UCLA scored 11 consecutive points and won 73-71, sending them to the school's 16th Final Four, and the first of Ben Howland’s back-to-back-to-back trips. With the great Gus Johnson making the call, it was an all-time game for the Tournament’s annals.
The only thing the Bruins know for sure is they got a 40-minute fight coming six days from now. They can control the way they prepare and play. Handicapping from the way they ran and shot and rebounded on the Tournament’s first weekend, they’ll be ready to go.
Hey, Doug Gottlieb, how you like them apples?