Column

UCLA has tuned out the noise and continues to dance

UCLA, thought not to belong, is the first team to make it into NCAA tournament's Sweet 16

The statement was made a week ago by a television analyst on the home network of the NCAA Basketball tournament.

It was announced that UCLA had been given a bid. Then, with millions watching, it was announced that they did not belong.

"UCLA safely in is a joke to me," said CBS' Doug Gottlieb. "It makes absolutely no sense. UCLA does not belong in this field."

Official words. Fightin' words.

A week later, the perceived last team to qualify for the tournament became the first to advance to its Sweet 16 with a 92-75 win over Alabama Birmingham, and the voices have changed.

Norman Powell cradled his head in his sweaty hands.

"Never doubted it," he said.

Isaac Hamilton stared into the middle of the joy-filled locker room.

"Some teams crumble and give up, but we didn't," he said.

Then there was Bryce Alford, who shrugged and wondered what many Bruins were wondering Saturday afternoon at the KFC Yum! Center after America's most unloved and unwanted college team headed into the second week of the tournament for the second consecutive season.

When does the dissing stop? When do the barbs end? When will folks finally realize that maybe, just maybe, this basketball program is headed in the right direction for the first time since the heyday of Ben Howland?

"People can say whatever they want, they're gonna say whatever they want," said Alford. "But when you look back on it, you make the Sweet 16 last year, we're here again this year, and that doesn't just happen."

It happened Saturday against the overmatched Blazers with a big game from forgotten giant Tony Parker (28 points and 12 rebounds), smart play from guards Alford and Hamilton (12 assists, three turnovers combined), and a general discipline that skilled teams sometimes don't show against underwhelming opponents.

It happened in the same season that UCLA once trailed, 24-0, to Kentucky, and once lost five straight games, and generally struggled to find itself after losing five players to professional basketball.

"They didn't listen to the noise … they listen in the locker room … they stayed together … they really fought to get better," said Coach Steve Alford.

Yeah, it happened the way Alford has coached it to happen, and when are people also going to acknowledge that only the second boss in UCLA history to make the Sweet 16 in each of his first two seasons maybe wasn't such a bad hire after all?

"At UCLA we'll always have high expectations," said Athletic Director Dan Guerrero, who sat several rows up from the UCLA bench with the small but loud Bruins contingent. "We hired who we felt was the best coach to move the program where we want to go, and to get to the Sweet 16 twice with a chance to get to the Elite Eight, that's pretty darn good."

Some will say the Bruins, who will play in Houston on Friday against Gonzaga or Iowa, have also been pretty darn lucky.

Lucky that USC beat Arizona State to set up an easy first-round win in the Pac-12 tournament. Lucky that goaltending calls are not reviewable, allowing the Bruins to steal a first-round tourney win against Southern Methodist. Lucky that powerful Iowa State moped its way to a first-round loss to UAB, allowing the Bruins a much easier game Saturday.

Some could carry out that luck theme for two seasons, noting that Alford's Bruins have not exactly beaten a Final Four's worth of teams in this tournament, with wins over Tulsa, Stephen F. Austin, SMU and now UAB.

It doesn't matter. You still have to win those games. You still have to beat the teams you should beat. That doesn't always happen this time of year, but it's consistently happened with Steve Alford's team in his two seasons at UCLA, and that matters.

"You still have to win the big games, and we've done that," said Bryce Alford.

The Bruins trailed early in this one, but they are a loose group that doesn't panic, another lesson from their coach, and they went on a 22-10 run midway through the first half marked by unselfish passes as crisp as Parker's dunks, and help defense as smart as Hamilton's mid-range shots.

"Even through bad stretches, Coach Alford keeps us believing," said Hamilton.

This is a team that has half-court shooting contests with its coaches after every practice. This is as team unafraid to joke with one another publicly, as Saturday's postgame news conference included Parker chiding Steve Alford for never being a good passer while Alford chided Parker for not claiming his true weight.

This may be celebrated UCLA, but it's also a team of kids who are allowed to act like kids, and this time of year, that lack of pressure keeps them dancing.

"We're like a family, coach really relates to us, and we relate to him," said Powell. "That brings out the best in all of us."

The most human of moments occurred with barely eight minutes remaining Saturday and the Bruins up by eight. Powell stole the ball and tossed it to Bryce Alford on a two-on-one fastbreak. Yet instead of laying it up, Alford tried to throw an ally-oop pass back to Powell. The ball floated back to UAB, and on the sidelines, Bryce's father was furious.

"Shoot the ball! Shoot the ball!" he screamed at his son, again and again.

Check the video. Bryce seemingly doesn't meet his Dad's eyes for the rest of the game.

"No, I didn't want to look at him after that," said Bryce with a smile. "But obviously, he's going to yell at me, I'm his son, and he knows I know better."

Then the Bruins won, and the fellas hugged, and the noise around this clamorous team is once again a joyful one, a Sweet one, and it didn't seem to matter whether anybody else was listening.

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

Twitter: @billplaschke

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