UCLA is back in the Big Dance for the first time since 2015, and the No. 3 Bruins will begin their quest for a 12th NCAA championship Friday against No. 14 Kent State in Sacramento. Led by freshmen guard Lonzo Ball and forward T.J. Leaf, UCLA has relied on its efficient offense and 3-point shooting all year to mask a shaky defense. And while LaVar Ball has boldly predicted that the Bruins will win March Madness, here’s where the Daily Bruin Sports editors think they will finish.
One and done
Prediction: Lose in the Round of 64
Michael Hull, assistant Sports editor
Someone has to say it – UCLA’s been playing like “des ordures” lately. I thought putting “garbage” in a foreign language would soften the blow, but I digress.
If the world of March Madness has told us anything, it’s that teams need to be at their best in each and every round. You don’t get the luxury of a series, in which the better team gets multiple chances to prove it and advance. You get 40 minutes of regulation and if things get really crazy, rounds of overtime.
The only two times UCLA has been thrust into a major postseason-like atmosphere this year when it’s win-or-go-home, came this past weekend at the Pac-12 championships, and let’s break down just how the boys in blue did.
The Prince of Westwood Lonzo Ball totaled nine points over two games.
The Bruins followed up their worst shooting performance of the year against USC, in which they hit only 41.2 percent of their takes, by renewing their worst shooting performance of the year: They nearly hit the 30s against Arizona, shooting 40.7.
And if you try and justify those numbers by Ball’s bad thumb and a freshly-out-of-a-boot T.J. Leaf, well then they better be 100 percent when they play Kent State on Friday.
Now, true, two games in the Pac-12s can’t justify a trend of the Bruins struggling in the limelight. But in college basketball, especially in March Madness, you aren’t allowed a large sample size if you’re playing at your worst.
And that’s where UCLA finds itself right now.
Sweet 16? Not this team
Prediction: Lose in the Round of 32
Hanson Wang, assistant Sports editor
My heart wants me to believe that Lonzo Ball and T.J. Leaf will carry UCLA to its first title since 1995, but my brain won’t.
Kent State will be an easy win in the first round, but if the Bruins face the sixth-seeded Cincinnati Bearcats in the second round, that’s where the run ends.
Think about what UCLA has struggled against this season – lengthy teams who play stifling defense, crash the offensive boards and disrupt shots.
Now guess what Cincinnati goes well – the Bearcats are ninth in adjusted defensive efficiency and eighth in opponent effective field goal percentage, 17th in the country with a 34.6 percent offensive rebound percentage and force 13.5 turnovers per game.
On the other side of the ball, Cincinnati has a balanced offense scoring 74 points per game, with four players averaging double figures and two more averaging eight points per game. Those numbers won’t put a scare into anyone, but UCLA’s defense has the potential to turn a middle-of-the-road offense into a scoring machine.
Furthermore, no one has any idea how healthy Ball and Leaf are, but I would bet that they are not close to 100 percent. And considering the lackluster performances against USC and Arizona in the Pac-12 tournament, UCLA does not have any momentum entering the NCAA Tournament.
Consider this: The Bruins barely defeated the Trojans in the conference tournament when the No. 2 seed in the West and a possible No. 1 seed were still on the line. In the one-and-done NCAA Tournament, UCLA will face more pressure to win and a much better defensive team in Cincinnati.
Shooting slumps won’t help either. Sophomore guard Aaron Holiday and senior guard Bryce Alford shot a combined 9-for-43 in the two conference tournament games, including 5-of-23 from 3-point range. If their cold streak continues and the superstar freshmen are still feeling the impact of their injuries, the Bruins’ NCAA title chances will only exist in LaVar Ball’s brain.
Prediction: Lose in the Sweet 16
David Gottlieb, assistant Sports editor
Two years ago, the Bruins exited in the Sweet 16 and everyone was happily surprised.
The same thing’s going to happen this year. Except everyone is going to be disappointed.
Kentucky will end things for UCLA in round three, mostly because I’m guessing the Wildcats are getting pretty tired of losing to the Bruins.
I trust the narrative of, “Yeah, they beat us the last two times, but those losses were so early in the season – we hadn’t even established a team identity.”
I don’t trust the narrative of, “We did it before so we can do it again.”
If seeds hold, and the Kentucky vs. UCLA rematch happens – as I’m guessing the committee wanted it to – the Wildcats will be the team with something to prove. That’s what will give them the edge.
Final Four but no more
Prediction: Lose in the Final Four
TuAnh Dam, Sports editor
Every March Madness, I inevitably end up making two brackets – one obligatory “UCLA makes a deep run” bracket and another one in which I pick the teams I actually think will do well in the NCAA Tournament.
This year, I’ll only need one if the Bruins play to their potential.
This Lonzo Ball-led team can run all the way to the championship game if they play the way they did in February – combining their usual brand of high-powered offense with steadily improving defense.
Or they could end up losing as early as the Sweet 16 if they play the way they did in the Pac-12 semifinals.
My guess is that they’ll rebound after losing to Arizona for the second time this season, especially with a few extra days of rest for Ball, who jammed his left thumb during the game, and T.J. Leaf, who’s coming off a sprained left ankle.
UCLA will likely need to get through some fellow college basketball blue-bloods – Kentucky and North Carolina – to book their ticket to Phoenix, but this team has notched those big wins and the only thing stopping them is its confidence.
Expect to see the Bruins to make it over this mental hurdle and to the Final Four for the first time since the Russell Westbrook-Kevin Love run.
All the way, baby
Prediction: Win UCLA’s 114th NCAA championship
Grant Sugimura, assistant Sports editor
Unlike the pessimists – or realists, depending on how you look at it – that I work with, I’m going commit fully and say that after a 22-year hiatus, UCLA will bring home the hardware.
Just like your crazy uncle who has been saying the same thing since 1996, the driving force behind my prediction is just a gut feeling. However, I’m not sure how much that counts considering I’m a Dodgers and Vikings fan.
Unlike former President and fellow Punahou graduate Barack Obama, I have faith that UCLA will be able to defeat Cincinnati in the Round of 32. The Bearcats are a team that boasts only moderate team statistics but have had a comparatively easy schedule this season.
Cincinnati’s top-two games, thus far, have been against then-No. 16 Butler and then-No. 12 SMU. The Bearcats lost both games by a combined 25 points – not exactly the Goliath slayers one would expect.
After that is some combination of a couple of teams that may include Kentucky, North Carolina, Kansas, Oregon, Duke, Villanova and Arizona en route to winning the NCAA championship. A tough road to be sure but one in which I believe UCLA’s high-flying offense can overcome.
With the departure of Lonzo Ball and T.J. Leaf next season, and maybe more, there is no second chance for this team and I think that will drive them to the finish line.
And even if my prediction is overly optimistic, so be it, I can live with that. However, if I were to predict UCLA to lose but it ends up winning the championship, I wouldn’t be able to live with myself – which is more of a personal problem than anything.