For UCLA against SMU, Isaac Hamilton is the one unknown

For UCLA against SMU, Isaac Hamilton is the one unknown
UCLA guard Isaac Hamilton drives to the basket against Arizona guard Gabe York during a semifinal game of the Pac-12 Tournament in Las Vegas on March 13. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images)

Until a week ago, Isaac Hamilton had shown little reason why he had been named a McDonald's All-American in high school. For UCLA, he was the fifth man in the starting rotation, a player who had a habit of disappearing.

On Thursday, against sixth-seeded SMU, the 11th-seeded Bruins are underdogs. But the one unknown is Hamilton, who could either shrink away from the pressure, as he did against North Carolina in November and Kentucky in December.

Or he could distill some of the magic from the March 12 game against USC in the Pac-12 tournament quarterfinals, when he shot 13 of 17 and scored 36 points.

Hamilton said he has turned a corner toward the latter.

"I'm starting to feel like my old self, that high school self. It just had that high school feel," Hamilton said. "It took a while. Just seeing the ball go in like that, it really gets you back to the man, like I really used to do this."

Hamilton said he is as confident as he has been all season. Earlier, he said, he had tried to do too much and was afraid of making mistakes. That made him hesitant. He second-guessed himself.

For the Mustangs, Hamilton is dangerous because he is likely the starter they worry about least. Norman Powell has been UCLA's best player. Kevon Looney is its most talented. Tony Parker spreads out the offense and Bryce Alford catches fire often.

Until a week ago, Hamilton hadn't burned other teams who paid him less mind. Now he said he will be more aggressive.

"I kind of got caught up," he said. "Now I'm loosening up. The game is starting to feel like it's opening to me. Not trying to be perfect every time."

Follow Zach Helfand on Twitter @zhelfand