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Column: Despite years of futility, USC and UCLA could have good paths in NCAA tournament

Animated illustration of USC and UCLA basketballs floating down to Lucas Oil Stadium on parachutes made of face masks.
As madness descends on Indianapolis, the NCAA tournament schedule could give USC and UCLA a soft landing.
(Ari Liloan / For The Times)

In this newly minted city of champions, the two biggest college basketball programs have been chumps.

The Sunday announcement of this year’s NCAA tournament brackets was a solemn reminder of all those years the locals have gone bust.

The last time a college from Los Angeles won an NCAA Division I national championship, the current players on the UCLA and USC rosters had yet to be born.

The last time a college from Los Angeles reached the Final Four, the semifinal game featured Kevin Love and Russell Westbrook against a team led by Derrick Rose.

The last time a college from Los Angeles made the Sweet 16, Lonzo Ball was staring down Bam Adebayo and De’Aaron Fox.

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It’s been 26 years since a title, 13 years since a Final Four, four years since a Sweet 16.

For a city inhabited by the school with the most NCAA basketball titles — UCLA has won 11, can you believe it? — the drought is as staggering as it is embarrassing.

This March could be, and should be, different.

USC will play the Wichita State vs. Drake winner on Saturday at 1:30 p.m. UCLA will face Michigan State in a First Four game on Thursday at 6:57 p.m.

Neither UCLA nor USC seemingly has a real shot at a national title, but both have been placed on paths that could lead them to the tournament’s second weekend, where a taste of the Sweet 16 would be a delicious triumph for both.

It’s about time. If not now, when? In a pandemic-plagued season filled with abrupt cancellations and strange blowouts and Oregon State winning the Pac-12 tournament, why can’t even the flawed locals do some serious dancing?

Mick Cronin, in his first tournament as UCLA’s coach, has reached the Sweet 16 just once in 11 trips. It says here that in the next eight days, he will coach his team past the likes of Tom Izzo and Shaka Smart, and that one question mark on his résumé will be answered.

“This is a step forward for us … it’s well documented, all the stuff this group’s been through with players and injuries, but we need to play, we need this experience, so that’s probably the thing I’m most happy about,” Cronin said Sunday afternoon.

Andy Enfield of USC has one Sweet 16 appearance in three tournaments as a coach — and the Trojans haven’t made it that far in 14 years — but they’ve rarely had a team this gifted and a tournament schedule this favorable. With a well-calibrated March lineup and winnable games in the first two rounds, there are few excuses for an early exit.

“I think we can do something special,” USC guard Tahj Eaddy said.

Both teams can, starting Thursday night when UCLA faces Michigan State in a play-in game disguised by the NCAA as something called “The First Four.”

USC coach Andy Enfield, right, instructs guard Tahj Eaddy during a win over UCLA on March 6.
(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

“When I saw it, I was like, ‘Man, that’s a heckuva play-in game,’” the Bruins’ Cody Riley said.

The Spartans’ Tom Izzo is known as one of the best coaches in tournament history with one title and seven Final Fours. Cronin said that in his interview for the Bruins job, he told then-athletic director Dan Guerrero that, “if I could do half of what Tom Izzo’s done at Michigan State, then that’s my goal at UCLA.”

But Izzo rarely has had a team this shaky. The Spartans finished the season losing nine of 16 games and probably didn’t even deserve a tournament spot with a 15-12 record. Yes, they had wins over Illinois, Ohio State and Michigan. But they also lost by 30 to Rutgers.

UCLA lost its last four games but led in each, three by double digits, and should be good enough to beat the Spartans even without injured Chris Smith and absent Jalen Hill.

“Some of the things that have happened to us at the end of games recently, it’s making sure our guys our understand that we’re a good team and they can win and try to keep their confidence up,” Cronin said. “That’s really been what I’m trying to accomplish.”

UC Santa Barbara will make its first appearance in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament since 2011 when it plays Creighton on Saturday.

A win against Michigan State would earn the Bruins a game against Brigham Young, a team that was wiped out by 26 points by USC in December. Don’t be fooled by the early scare the Cougars put into Gonzaga in the West Coast Conference tournament final. The Cougars would be no lock against the Bruins.

A win there would set up the Bruins to probably play Texas, the Big 12 tournament champions who advanced only after their semifinal opponent, Kansas, dropped out because of COVID-19 issues. The Longhorns are a versatile and talented team, but Smart hasn’t won an NCAA tournament game since arriving there six years ago, and the Bruins could slow them down and shove them around.

Cronin was hired to turn the Bruins tough. Their bracket is set up for that toughness to shine. Why can’t the Sweet 16 be possible?

“Coach talked about, we can’t be a soft team, we have to get our mentality right collectively as a team to move forward. We can’t just be one guy, two guys; we have to hold each other accountable,” Riley said. “So that’s what we took from the games we lost where we just didn’t have enough to get over the hump and we’re looking forward to the tournament to where we can showcase that.”

Southern California forward Evan Mobley, left, shoots as UCLA guard Jaylen Clark defends.
USC forward Evan Mobley shoots over UCLA guard Jaylen Clark during the Trojans’ win on March 6. Are the USC and UCLA men’s basketball programs finally becoming relevant on a national level again?
(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

USC, meanwhile, has the right stuff to easily showcase into the tournament’s second weekend, what with top NBA prospect Evan Mobley surrounded by veteran playmakers. The Trojans just need to avoid giving their opponents bulletin board material. About their first-round challenger — the winner of the Wichita State-Drake First Four game — Enfield made a geographical reference that may fall flat as a Midwestern landscape.

“I know nothing about either team,” he said Sunday. “I think Wichita is in Wichita, Kansas and Drake is somewhere in the Midwest. I’d have to get my map out. Are they in Iowa?”

Of course, even if both teams take that personally, the Trojans should dominate either one. A win there probably would land USC in a second-round game against Kansas and, despite Bill Self’s résumé of one title and three Final Fours, the Jayhawks are a distracted mess. In addition to dropping out of the Big 12 tournament, they will be traveling to Indianapolis without three of their players. Advantage Trojans.

Said USC’s Mobley: “I think we’re very motivated.”

Said UCLA’s Jaime Jaquez Jr.: “We’ve hopefully got a lot more games to play.”

From their lips to March’s ears.


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