The original version of this article contained an error and has been changed. See the bottom of the article for additional information.
When UCLA’s season is finally over, we will judge it as we do all of the others: by how the Bruins play in the NCAA tournament.
That’s what comes with 11 national championship banners in Pauley Pavilion’s rafters. The men’s basketball calendar shrinks until only March is showing, because March is the only month that matters.
Other teams may spend multiple seasons just to get to the field of 68. At UCLA, it is usually the expectation that the Bruins should be the last team left dancing in the tournament.
This season’s Bruins know that nobody expects anything of them. Selection Sunday only reinforced that.
They watched California get the coveted in-state spot in San Jose, despite ending the season on a two-game losing streak. Oregon got sent to the same fan-friendly location, despite both teams earning No. 12 seeds.
An Arizona team that UCLA beat in each of three meetings this season was the highest-ranked Pac-12 team in the field. The Wildcats get to go to Salt Lake City and could play all of their games out west, which the Bruins thought they had earned the right to do.
Instead, the Bruins have to travel the farthest out of the five Pac-12 teams that made the field. They play in Austin, Texas, on Friday night as a No. 6 seed, facing the No. 11-seeded Golden Gophers.
A team that had just lost a few hours earlier in the conference tournament title game, while key cog Jordan Adams watched from a wheelchair, still couldn’t get over its frustration.
Coach Ben Howland said that UCLA would have rather been in Cal’s position, a lower seed with a better location.
“I don’t know why (the selection committee) put us in Austin,” Shabazz Muhammad said. “We proved ourselves all year in Pac-12 and (non-conference) play.
“They’re always holding something against us. It might be (against) UCLA or it might be me but I don’t know what it is,” he added, laughing but clearly not amused. “I don’t know about the NCAA.”
Muhammad’s feelings about the seeding, coupled with a little NCAA paranoia still left over from his suspension, bubbled over into an irrational thought that the organization is still out to get him.
He and his teammates should stay angry about how the committee slighted them, though.
If UCLA wants to get anywhere in this tournament, the seven remaining scholarship players will have to be scrappy and play with a desire to prove the doubters wrong. (By the way, those doubters include sportsbooks, which installed the lower-seeded Gophers as favorites.)
That description is fitting of the Cinderellas that no one expects to make tournament runs, not the champions of the college basketball world.
It’s only fitting that this is the way the Bruins enter the tournament. Since opening the season ranked No. 13 in the country, they deservedly fell out of the elite ranks, and never could earn their way back in.
It may be March, and there may be four letters on a white jersey come Friday, but UCLA isn’t expected to do what it has historically done in that situation: win.
“We’ve got a great opportunity here,” said redshirt senior guard Larry Drew II. “We let a great opportunity slip away (against Oregon), but we’ve just got to roll with the punches.”
There will be some more hits. For starters, the Gophers are one of the nation’s best in a category the Bruins have lots of trouble with: rebounding. There is little Howland can do scheme-wise to make his team better at grabbing boards – there just has to be a little extra fire from the players themselves to be tougher on the glass.
If they step off the plane in Austin as ticked off as they were on Sunday, it would help make sure this season didn’t come to a disappointing end.
Fans of the Bruins may have a hard time getting to the game, but the team need not worry about a lack of support. When it comes to March, everyone loves a good underdog.
Correction: The first sentence was missing from the article.