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Tuesday, March 14, 2017
Third-seeded UCLA to open NCAA Tournament vs. Kent State in Sacramento on Friday
mar 12, 2017 | clay fowler |o.c. register | ARTICLE LINK
When the men’s NCAA Tournament brackets were released Sunday, UCLA had a familiar number next to its name.
The No. 3 team in the country, which finished third in the Pac-12, is the No. 3 seed in the South Region. The Bruins will open against 14th-seeded Kent State on Friday in Sacramento.
Of course, UCLA’s ranking in the Associated Press poll will assuredly drop from No. 3 after Friday’s loss to Arizona in the semifinals of the Pac-12 tournament. But that won’t lessen the Bruins’ expectations, at least based on one player’s assessment of a satisfying NCAA Tournament result.
“Championship,” freshman point guard Lonzo Ball said. “We don’t play to lose.”
Its performance in the conference tournament likely had some bearing on UCLA’s seed, but it was Pac-12 tournament champion Arizona that claimed the No. 2 seed in the geographically friendly West Region.
Seeded ahead of UCLA in the South are No. 1 North Carolina and No. 2 Kentucky.
UCLA’s first hurdle is a Kent State team that was a game over .500 before winning nine of its last 10, including victories over the top three seeds in the Mid-American Conference tournament to claim an automatic berth in the NCAA Tournament.
Kent State lost to the two common opponents it shared with UCLA this season, falling by 19 at Oregon State and four at Western Michigan. UCLA defeated those two teams by an average of 15 points.
Should UCLA advance out of the first round, it will face either sixth-seeded Cincinnati or the winner of a play-in game between No. 11 seeds Kansas State and Wake Forest.
“I can’t even tell you the teams in our bracket right now that’s on the other side,” UCLA coach Steve Alford said. “It’s our job as coaches to make sure our players are point-blank and all their concentration is on Kent State. And it’s the players’ job to understand that is the magic of the tournament – one mess-up now, you don’t get another game.”
The Bruins beat Kentucky on Dec. 3 at Rupp Arena and could earn a rematch if both advance to the Sweet 16 in Memphis, Tenn.
The head-to-head victory over Kentucky was the only advantage for UCLA among considerations by the NCAA Tournament committee. Kentucky’s RPI was fourth while UCLA’s was 15th, and statistics guru Ken Pomeroy rated Kentucky’s schedule the 28th-most difficult in the country. UCLA’s was 78th.
Alford lobbied hard for his team’s seed since the Bruins were slapped with a No. 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament committee’s first release of a preliminary bracket on Feb. 11. His tune didn’t change on selection Sunday.
“These guys know that their body of work tells them that they’re in this tournament and they’ve got as good a chance as anybody,” Alford said. “We’ve beaten the Pac-12 champ, we’ve beaten the SEC champ, we’ve beaten the Big Ten champ, and two of those three have been on the road.”
The Bruins’ two games against Arizona were their only opportunities to earn quality victories since the NCAA Tournament committee ranked UCLA 15th in the country on Feb 11.
UCLA split with the Wildcats, losing at Pauley Pavilion, then snapping Arizona's 21-game winning streak at McKale Center Feb. 25 before losing convincingly to Arizona in the Pac-12 Tournament.
Alford didn’t believe the 86-75 loss in Las Vegas on Friday affected UCLA’s NCAA Tournament seed.
"I don’t think so,” he said. “I would think we’ve probably been on that three line for a long time, is what it looks like."
Perhaps the largest concern that emerged from the Pac-12 Tournament was Ball’s injured left thumb. The nation’s leader in assists said he’ll be fine for the NCAA Tournament, but he finished Friday’s loss to Arizona with a stat line below his lofty standards: eight points, six assists, five rebounds and four turnovers.
UCLA’s other freshman star also has a lingering injury concern, but TJ Leaf indicated his sprained left ankle, encased on a walking boot Sunday, won’t be an issue. Leaf suffered the injury March 1, but played effectively wearing a brace in both the Bruins’ Pac-12 Tournament games.
UCLA’s concerns certainly extend beyond their nicked-up freshmen. The team leading the nation in field-goal percentage had its two worst shooting performances all season in its final two games before the NCAA Tournament. The highest-scoring team in the country slipped past USC, which will begin the NCAA Tournament in a play-in game, with a 41.2 shooting percentage In the Pac-12 Tournament quarterfinals before Arizona held UCLA to 40.7 percent from the field in the semifinals.
UCLA’s record holder for career 3-pointers, Bryce Alford, has made just 5 of his last 25 attempts from beyond the arc.
“If anything, it's just getting our swagger back,” Bryce Alford said, “and having that confidence that we can play with anybody."