When UCLA’s basketball team prepares to open the NCAA tournament against Tulsa on Friday in San Diego, Norman Powell and Tony Parker represent the unknown.
“They are our X factors,” Coach Steve Alford said.
The Bruins have talent: Playmaker Kyle Anderson can score and leads UCLA in rebounding and assists; deadeye shooter Jordan Adams is cool in the clutch; the Wear twins, Travis and David, are a double-barreled matchup challenge; and UCLA even has a projected NBA lottery pick, Zach LaVine, coming off the bench.
But the Bruins could use better interior work when the tournament begins. And that’s where Powell and Parker come in.
Powell is a 6-4 slasher who’s at his best when powering to the rim. Parker, at 6-9, 255 pounds, is UCLA’s most physical player.
“Those two can take us to another level,” said assistant coach Ed Schilling, who works with UCLA’s big men.
Which is exactly what they did in the Pac-12 Conference tournament championship game against Arizona.
Parker had four points and seven rebounds in 13 minutes and contributed a big play at a key juncture. Arizona had just taken its first lead, 49-48, with 15 minutes left when Parker muscled his way to an offensive rebound and scored on a layup to restore order.
Powell had 15 points and got the Bruins off to a fast start by scoring eight of UCLA’s first 19 points.
“When I get locked in, I can feel our energy rise,” Powell said. “Whether it’s getting to the rim and finishing or getting to the free-throw line, it keeps the energy high.”
Powell is particularly effective attacking the basketball in transition, but assistant coach Duane Broussard says the junior from San Diego sparks the Bruins in a variety of ways.
“A dunk, a fastbreak layup and finish, a three-point shot that you don’t really expect, you see our guys get excited about that,” Broussard said. “When he can do those things well, it makes us great.”
UCLA has a 17-3 record when Powell scores in double figures. “I can chill and hide out when he goes to work,” Adams said. “The defense has to play honest. I’m grateful for that.”
Powell’s attack-the-rim style has allowed him to be productive when the Bruins are away from Pauley Pavilion, playing in unfamiliar arenas where the outside shooting can suffer.
He scored 19 points in a victory at Colorado and had 17 points to help the Bruins survive at Oregon.
“Being able to get to the basket is key,” Powell said. “I’m able to get to the line. It makes the defense sag in and protect the paint. It opens up things for our shooters.”
Broussard said it all starts on the other end. Powell is the team’s best defender.
“When Norman is engaged early, it usually happens on the defensive end,” Broussard said.
In the Pac-12 tournament semifinal, Powell was assigned Stanford’s Chasson Randle, who scorched the Bruins for 26 points in an 83-74 Cardinal victory during the regular season. Randle was held to 11 points. Powell scored 22.
“When you motivate him, he’s dangerous,” Broussard said.
As for Parker, he gives the team a lift every game — before the Bruins even take the court.
After the starting lineups are introduced, UCLA huddles around Parker, who goes into a routine that is part modern dance, part rap and part who-just-put-ice-down-my-back?
Said Schilling: “Everybody around Tony likes him. He’s a fun kid with a great sense of humor. You want him to do well.”
Sometimes, Parker does do well.
There was a victory over Stanford in January when he made nine of 14 shots and finished with 22 points and seven rebounds. At Oregon, he grabbed four rebounds and scored nine points on four-for-four shooting.
“He gets set in the paint and he’s a force,” Adams said.
Parker shot 59% in Pac-12 play, which would have been tops in the conference had he taken enough shots to qualify.
The sophomore gives the Bruins something no other player on the roster can offer: a big, wide body in the paint. That is, when he can stay available.
“He gets in foul trouble,” Schilling said. “Sometimes that big body, which can be a huge asset, can be a liability.”
Parker has fouled out six times this season. He finished with four fouls in six other games.
“He’s the guy who can play with the big bruisers,” Schilling said. “Tony is that low-post presence, the guy who can really rebound in traffic.”
In the tournament title game against Arizona, Parker at one point fought off three Wildcats for an offensive rebound, then scored.
“I brought physicality to that game,” Parker said. “I was in there to battle. It was good times.”
The Bruins are looking for more of those.
Powell and Parker can help provide them.