UCLA keeps winning games, but not the hearts and minds of bracketologists

UCLA keeps winning games, but not the hearts and minds of bracketologists
UCLA forward TJ Leaf (22) drives to the basket guarded by USC forward Bennie Boatwright (25) and guard Shaqquan Aaron in the first half of the Bruins' 102-70 win at Pauley Pavilion on Feb.18. (Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

UCLA could be forgiven for thinking this is starting to feel personal.

The Bruins are ranked No. 5 in the country. They have beaten national powers Oregon and Kentucky. They have lost only three games, with no bad defeats.


And yet their projected NCAA tournament seeding hasn't budged in recent weeks from No. 4, a less-than-vaunted spot.

That's where bracketologists Joe Lunardi of ESPN and Jerry Palm of CBS Sports have both pegged the Bruins, the same place where they were projected to land when the NCAA tournament unveiled its sneak peek at the brackets earlier this month.

UCLA proponents can gripe that the Bruins (24-3 overall, 11-3 Pac-12 Conference) have fewer losses than one team projected to receive a No. 1 seeding (North Carolina), three teams projected to receive No. 2 seedings (Louisville, Oregon and Baylor) and all four teams projected to receive No. 3 seedings (Duke, Florida, Florida State and Kentucky).

"That part's odd," UCLA Coach Steve Alford said Tuesday of his team's projected seeding given its resume, "but we don't control that and there are still a lot of games to be played."

The Bruins certainly are trending upward. UCLA has gone 5-0 in February, winning those games by an average of 22 points. The Bruins' 32-point romp over USC on Saturday was the Trojans' most lopsided defeat of the season.

The problem lies with some of the more advanced statistics. The Bruins have an NCAA Ratings Percentage Index of 19 and the Pac-12's RPI is sixth, last among major conferences.

UCLA's schedule is also an issue. The Bruins' strength of schedule checks in at 89, according to analytics expert Ken Pomeroy, largely because of a nonconference strength of schedule that ranked only 290 out of 351 teams. Scheduling four games against Big West Conference teams might have been a bit much, but the Bruins couldn't have foreseen that Nebraska (12-14), Texas A&M (14-12) and Ohio State (15-13) would all be having down years.

"We know we scheduled very well and played very good teams, you just can't control what they do and you can't control what your other league teams do," Alford said. "And truth be told, we didn't get a lot of big wins nonleague within our league like we did a year ago. So everybody in our league has had to make that up in league play."

UCLA, which plays at Arizona State (13-15, 6-9) on Thursday, has four games remaining in the regular season but only one real chance to boost its standing before the Pac-12 tournament. That comes Saturday when the Bruins play at No. 4 Arizona, which is projected by both Lunardi and Palm to receive a No. 2 seeding.

"That goes a long way I think in the eyes of the committee if you can go into a place like that," UCLA shooting guard Bryce Alford said of the game against the Wildcats at the McKale Center, "just like what we did in Kentucky. To me, that's got to go a long way. There's not a whole lot of teams that can go into a place like Rupp Arena and get a win, so if we can do that at McKale, that's a big deal."

UCLA probably will start the NCAA tournament in Sacramento because of the pod system that keeps teams having good seasons close to home for the first two rounds, but the Bruins appear destined to play outside the West Regional unless they beat Arizona and win the Pac-12 tournament.

Lunardi has projected UCLA to play in the South Regional and Palm has placed the Bruins in the Midwest Regional. A bigger factor in UCLA's success than where the Bruins play will be how they're playing.

"The biggest question is when we're done with the Pac-12 tournament, how does this team look?" Steve Alford said. "And if we can stay healthy and take the next three weeks to get better before the national tournament, if that happens then we're going to be pretty excited."



Bryce Alford needs 14 points to surpass Ed O'Bannon (1,815 points) for No. 6 on UCLA's all-time career scoring list. Alford already has become the only player in Bruins history to record at least 1,700 points and 500 assists. … Freshman center Ike Anigbogu said the surgically repaired right knee that sidelined him for a game earlier this month was getting closer to 100% and wasn't limiting him.

Twitter: @latbbolch