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UCLA gets NCAA tournament bid, surprising many and angering some

UCLA gets an NCAA berth as the fifth-to-last at-large choice and the fourth of four Pac-12 entries

The teams popped up on the screen as UCLA awaited its NCAA tournament fate on Sunday. The Bruins were on the bubble. Few outside the team's nutrition room, where a flat-screen television conveyed the bracket announcements, expected a bid.

By the time the broadcast reached the second region, the East, several bubble teams had already been selected. Hope was dimming.

Announcer Greg Gumbel called out the next team: "UC" — the team waited on edge — "Irvine."

False alarm.

Moments later, Gumbel said: "The Bruins of" — inhale — "Belmont." Exhale.

"We almost got tricked," UCLA Coach Steve Alford said afterward. But he could afford to laugh: UCLA, in a surprise selection, made the field of 68.

The Bruins are the 11th seed in the South Regional. They will play sixth-seeded Southern Methodist (27-6), which is guided by former UCLA coach Larry Brown, in Louisville, Ky., on Thursday.

When the NCAA selection committee released its full list, UCLA (20-13) was the fifth-to-last at-large team in the field — comfortably in, even though nearly all national projections had listed UCLA on the outside. Almost instantly, pundits began questioning the selection.

"UCLA safely in is a joke to me," analyst Doug Gottlieb said on the CBS broadcast. "It makes no sense."

Later on the broadcast, Utah State Athletic Director Scott Barnes, the selection committee chairman, said the committee had been closely tracking UCLA over the last month. In that time, he said, the Bruins passed the eye test.

"One of the tougher decisions the committee has had to make," Barnes said.

Barnes cited UCLA's strength of schedule and improvement against tough competition as reasons for its selection. Specifically, he noted the close loss to Arizona in a Pac-12 Conference tournament semifinal.

In the first round of the NCAA tournament, UCLA has typically played in one of the last games in a late session, when the game can air in prime time on the West Coast. This year, the Bruins will play in the second game of the first session, at 12:20 p.m. PDT, and the game will air on truTV.

Senior guard Norman Powell said he and his teammates aren't worried about those who have questioned whether UCLA deserved a bid. They aren't listening.

"Honestly, whatever Doug Gottlieb said and whatever anybody else said is not really going to affect anything we're going to do," Powell said. "It's not going to do anything but add fuel to the fire."

For SMU, the American Athletic Conference regular-season and tournament champion, this is its first NCAA tournament since 1993. Brown, the Mustangs' coach, coached UCLA for two seasons, 1979-80 and 1980-81. He led the Bruins to the national championship game in 1980 (they lost to Louisville), but UCLA was later forced to vacate the appearance after two players were ruled ineligible because they received impermissible benefits.

Brown left in 1981 to coach the NBA's New Jersey Nets.

Since taking the job at SMU in 2012, Brown has revived the program. Last season, the Mustangs were snubbed on selection day. "Sunday last year at this time was about as disappointing as it could get," Brown said.

This season, they made sure there was no doubt. SMU has avoided bad losses — five defeats came against tournament teams and the other against defending national champion Connecticut — but it hasn't been tested much.

It lost to the two teams on its schedule currently in the Associated Press top 25, Gonzaga and Arkansas. Its best wins were against Tulsa, Temple and Connecticut. All three missed the tournament.

If UCLA wins, it would play the winner between No. 3 Iowa State and No. 14 Alabama Birmingham. No. 1 Duke and No. 2 Gonzaga headline the South Region, and the Bruins are joined by fellow Pac-12 team Utah, the fifth seed.

In all, four Pac-12 teams made the tournament.

It is a surprise UCLA has made it this far, not only because its resume didn't sparkle, but also considering where the team was early in the season. The Bruins, who lost three players early to the NBA draft, dropped five consecutive games in December and January, including an embarrassing 83-44 loss to Kentucky. Even recently, they have struggled on the road.

But UCLA's schedule was rated the toughest in the Pac-12 and it won eight of its last 11 regular-season games. In a conference tournament semifinal, the Bruins pushed Arizona to the brink.

"With everything that was lost from just one year ago, for this team to get themselves in the NCAA tournament and do the things they've been able to do this year, it's a huge accomplishment for them," Alford said.

zach.helfand@latimes.com

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