Just when you thought UCLA’s biggest roadblocks on its journey to a championship would be Lonzo Ball’s strained thumb and shooting jitters, two more gaping potholes appeared.
One is Kentucky. The other is North Carolina.
The Bruins, seeded third in the South region in the NCAA tournament pairings announced Sunday, have been charted on a course into a perfect storm.
Their road to the Final Four could be tougher than the actual Final Four. They don’t just have to win games, they could have to dethrone dynasties. They won’t just have to play in strange gyms, they’ll have to survive hostile territories. Should the Bruins reach the University of Phoenix Stadium for the Final Four, their desert stay could feel like spring break.
“Every team we’re going to play, regardless of the name on their jersey, is going to be a big-time team,’’ guard Bryce Alford told reporters Sunday afternoon.
Ah, um, not really.
The road should start smoothly through the first weekend in Sacramento. The Bruins should beat 13-loss Kent State in a golden flash, which I believe is a terrific pun on their nickname. They will then probably play Cincinnati, a defensive team that can go cold quick, such as when it lost by 15 points to Southern Methodist in its conference title game.
In what will surely be a Bruins-friendly Golden 1 Center, anything other than two UCLA victories Friday and Sunday would qualify as a huge upset.
But then their road veers about 1,800 miles into the dark maw of two basketball giants.
If the Bruins advance to the Sweet 16, their next opponent could be sour Kentucky, an angry powerhouse looking for revenge from an earlier loss to the Bruins at its own Rupp Arena.
If the Bruins advance to the regional final, their opponent could be North Carolina, a team returning most of its best players from last year’s national title game and the regular-season champion of the toughest conference in the country.
Making it more difficult is that both of those games would be played within a three-day period. It’s difficult to imagine the odds of anyone defeating Kentucky and North Carolina in such a short span. If UCLA wins that South Regional, the Bruins should not only cut down the nets, but bronze them.
The only thing crazier than this potential tournament schedule is that the Bruins could actually weather it.
It says here that UCLA, which has been beaten by only three teams and avenged all three losses, can become UCLA again after stumbling through two confusing days in the Pac-12 Conference Tournament in Las Vegas.
It says here that if their game returns to normal, these Bruins can reasonably advance to that Final Four, and then certainly beyond.
The left thumb of Ball, which was strained Friday night, has to be strong. He says it is.
“I’ll be ready to play on Friday,’’ he said Sunday.
The Bruins’ joyful attack, which suddenly disappeared last weekend for the first time all season, has to show up again. Bryce Alford says he’s on it.
“There were a couple of times in the tournament when we were trying to figure out what play we were running instead of just playing our game, running up and down,’’ he said. “If anything, it’s just getting our swagger back a little bit and having that confidence that we can play with anybody.’’
As hard as it is to envision beating Kentucky twice in one season, this is not the overwhelming Kentucky team of years past. The Wildcats played in a mediocre conference, and lost three of four games to currently ranked teams outside of the Southeastern Conference season. Plus, the Bruins are unafraid of the Wildcats’ aura, and that’s half the battle.
Not that different. And if the Bruins then find themselves playing mighty North Carolina next, just look at how Duke blew away the Tar Heels in the second half of their Atlantic Coast Conference tournament game. The Blue Devils sped past the North Carolina giants with quickness and three-point shooting, which is exactly how UCLA could do it.
And regarding all that hostile tournament pressure? Please. UCLA has essentially been under tournament pressure since sprinting onto the national landscape earlier this season. They have a player whose father is the coach. They have another player whose father compares him to Steph Curry, for LaVar’s sake.
“I’m not too worried about it,’’ Bryce Alford said. “We’ve got a lot of guys that have handled pressure all year very well. Me being a coach’s kid. … Lonzo has all kinds of pressure with who he is. … the same with TJ [Leaf]. Every game you’ve got the pressure that you’re supposed to win. I think that’s going to help us going forward.’’
Going forward with your brackets, recognize UCLA’s treacherous journey, but leave them out of the Final Four at your own risk.
As for USC, it’s worth applauding Andy Enfield on a well-deserved second consecutive tournament appearance, but it’s tough to imagine the Trojans surviving the first weekend.
USC should win its play-in game against Providence in a rematch of last year’s heartbreaking first-round loss, but then it must endure a different sort of rematch with Southern Methodist. The Trojans beat the Mustangs in November, but SMU has gone 26-2 since that game, winning its last 16 games, and the Mustangs’ athleticism matches that of the Trojans step for step.
Whatever happens, it will be a wild couple of weeks for Southern California college basketball, two teams dancing, a wonderful clatter.