Few people saw this coming – UCLA becoming one of the favorites in the NCAA Tournament this quickly.
Not after what happened last year when the Bruins went 15-17 and missed out on the Big Dance.
Even after signing a top-5 recruiting class that featured the nation’s No. 1 point guard and the No. 3 power forward, coach Steve Alford couldn’t imagine such a fast turnaround for his team.
But behind freshmen Lonzo Ball, T.J. Leaf and Ike Anigbogu, it happened, and now UCLA, a 3-seed in the South Region, will tip off against 14th-seeded Kent State on Friday night.
“I don’t know how I could ask much more out of them,” Alford said at Tuesday afternoon’s press conference. “29-4, and we’ve only lost to three teams and those three teams we lost to we actually beat.”
The Bruins’ biggest upcoming challenge before the Final Four will be against a team they beat on the road – the Kentucky Wildcats.
Should both teams win their first two games, the Bruins will be playing in the Sweet 16 for a spot in the Elite Eight, their first under Alford and first since Russell Westbrook and Kevin Love led the team to the Final Four.
But any missteps against Kent State or in the second round against the winner of Cincinnati and Kansas State, the season will be over – no matchup against Kentucky, no Final Four, no championship banner.
“It can be difficult obviously, you’re looking forward to certain games and all that, but you’ve got to take it one game at a time,” said sophomore guard Aaron Holiday. “You lose one, you’re done. So we just have to focus on the one game.”
For Ball, it’ll be the only NCAA Tournament of his collegiate career, with Alford telling reporters to take the “might” out of it.
“This is what he’s driven for and he came to UCLA for this,” Alford said. “He didn’t know we were going to miss the tournament last year but that just added to the fuel of ‘I’m going to do everything I can to get this thing back to where it belongs and sit among the top.’”
The freshmen – as much as they have bolstered the team this year with Ball earning Pac-12 Freshman of the Year honors and Leaf making the All-Freshman team – haven’t gotten the full March Madness experience yet.
Only upperclassmen Thomas Welsh, Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton were on the team when the Bruins made it to the Sweet 16 in 2015, and those veterans will try to guide Ball, Leaf and Anigbogu as they navigate through the final stretch of the season.
UCLA struggled in its first postseason tournament, squeaking by USC in the quarterfinals before bowing out of the Pac-12 tournament to Arizona in the semi-finals, playing one of their poorest games of the season.
“Obviously we lost in the Pac-12 tournament and we didn’t have a chance to win that, but March Madness is a totally different game,” Welsh, the team’s starting junior center, said. “Guys that have made a run at the tournament before can help them understand this is the time of year where it has to be the best you’ve got every game.”
Anything other than their best game and the Bruins might be back in Westwood watching the rest of the tournament.