Column

Bruins hope their NCAA tournament bubble doesn't burst Sunday

UCLA's NCAA selection is in the hands of the committee

The weekend was a numbers-lovers paradise that took us from Friday the 13th horror (ask Virginia and Duke) to the celebration of Pi Day (3.14159 …), where it was hard to differentiate the conferences from the circumferences.

From there, all troughs fed to Selection Sunday, where 75 schools (maybe more) believe they should be shoehorned into 68 spots designated for assignment in this year's NCAA tournament.

Among the vital questions remaining is whether the field will include the school that proudly hangs 11 NCAA championship banners.

UCLA played well enough in defeat to Arizona in the Pac-12 tournament semifinals to keep one sneaker in inclusion's door.

The Bruins are still in the mix because several other teams on the bubble forgot to close the back-bracket door.

Just to be a tease, ESPN bracket expert Joe Lunardi at one point Saturday had UCLA first among his "First Four Out" of the tournament, which is like holding a hot dog next to a dog's nose.

It will be exciting to see UCLA players crowded around a couch, like players from Davidson and Boise State, waiting to hear their names called on television.

All UCLA (20-13) wants is the chance to prove it isn't the team that lost to Kentucky by 39 points on Dec. 20. Bruins fans swear it would be only 20 or 25 this time.

If UCLA falls short, the Bruins will be left to pursue their second NIT championship, with a promise not to lose the banner this time.

Kentucky was more of a foregone conclusion than Saturday's sunrise.

The Wildcats kept perfect alive with a semi-exciting 91-67 win over Auburn in the semifinals of the Southeastern Conference tournament. It was fitting the team that improved to 33-0 held Auburn to 33.3% shooting (18 of 54), with stopper Willie Cauley-Stein leading the way with 18 points, seven rebounds and three blocks.

"We're a defensive team, that's what we are," Kentucky Coach John Calipari said after Saturday's win.

Auburn Coach Bruce Pearl called Kentucky "the best team I've ever coached against."

It doesn't matter that the SEC is down this year, or that two of Auburn's best players missed Saturday's game because of suspensions.

Kentucky is making it harder and harder to get excited about a 68-team field when one team is already making parade plans.

Bluegrass Nation is seven wins away from the first 40-0 season in college basketball and the first undefeated season since Indiana in 1976.

Kentucky is so far ahead of Sunday's bracket announcement, NCAA Vice President Dan Gavitt conceded to CBS the Wildcats have secured the top overall seeding no matter what happens in the SEC final against Arkansas.

Kentucky will be No.1 in the Midwest and open NCAA tournament play on Thursday in Louisville. Two wins there would advance Kentucky to the regional finals in Cleveland, with a final whistle stop planned for the Final Four in Indianapolis.

There were interesting developments elsewhere only if you still think the NCAA tournament is worth playing.

Two Atlantic Coast Conference schools, Virginia and Duke, appeared to have top seeds locked up heading into the league tournament.

Plans may have changed Friday, though, when Virginia lost to North Carolina and Duke lost to Notre Dame.

The school poised to take advantage is Wisconsin, provided the Badgers win the Big Ten tournament Sunday.

It remains to be seen whether Duke, or Virginia, would cede one of the top positions.

Duke has a formidable resume but will have not won the ACC regular-season or tournament titles. What Duke has done is defeat Wisconsin and Virginia on the road.

Final bracket puzzle pieces were still being sorted into the wee hours of the Big West championship game.

We know geographical preference will be granted the top eight teams in the field, almost cinching opening round spots for these schools in these cities: Arizona (Portland), Gonzaga (Seattle), Villanova (Pittsburgh), Wisconsin, Kansas, (Omaha), Virginia, Duke (Charlotte).

"Championship" Saturday did not disappoint in producing a number of inspirational, and confounding, moments.

Peter Hooley, from Australia, made a second-chance three-pointer in the final seconds to earn Albany the America East bid over Stony Brook. His winning shot came only days after he lost his mother, Sue, to cancer on Jan. 30.

The Ivy League, the only conference that does not play a conference tournament, did require an extra game to determine its NCAA entry.

Harvard earned its fourth straight bid with a two-point win over Yale at the famed Palestra in Philadelphia.

Hampton (16-17) defeated Delaware State (18-17) to win the Mid-East Athletic Conference in an epic battle of schools with a combined record of 34-34.

Texas Southern, in the strangest bid twist, clinched the Southwestern Conference berth before Saturday's title game tipoff.

Southern made the finals but was not eligible because of NCAA probation (Texas Southern won anyway).

The NCAA tournament, if you didn't know by now, doesn't pretend to field the best 68-team field.

It is an event, however, that offers lottery-ball tickets to outcasts and misfits that have no actual chance of winning the grand prize.

You wouldn't have a heart if you weren't rooting for underdogs such as UCLA and Indiana to meet in a "play-in" game Tuesday in Dayton.

Gosh, it's been an eternity (20 years) since either program won a national title.

Imagine Kentucky chasing history in the same field where the 11th- or 12th-seeded Bruins and Hoosiers are chasing ghosts.

History books will verify that Indiana and UCLA own the last five undefeated seasons in college basketball. Before Indiana in 1976, UCLA went unscathed in 1973, '72, '67 and '64.

If that seems like forever ago, well, it was.

chris.dufresne@latimes.com

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