Column: More madness than march? UCLA and USC face tough roads to Big Easy

Illustration of a Bruin, a Trojan and a basketball in with New Orleans buildings in purple, yellow and green around them.
(Ariel Sinha / For The Times)
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A year ago, they both busted the brackets.

Now, it appears the brackets could bust them.

A year ago in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, UCLA fought its way to the Final Four while USC rolled to the Elite Eight.

Now, it appears both will have to fight their way out of the First Weekend.

A year ago, the Bruins’ Mick Cronin and the Trojans’ Andy Enfield performed some of the best coaching magic of their careers.

Now, it appears they’ve been cursed with more hats than rabbits.

UCLA received a No. 4 seed and will start its push to return to the Final Four in Portland while USC is a No. 7 seed and Cal State Fullerton is No. 15.

March 13, 2022

The unveiling of the March Madness brackets Sunday, while filled with the usual local hope, somberly set both UCLA and USC on a possible March toward madness.


Both face tall tasks to advance to the Sweet 16. And if either makes it that far, the rest of the trek is so difficult that any success could match last year on the miracle meter.

As big dances go, both teams are going to have to do some serious waltzing just to survive, let alone make it to the Final Four in New Orleans.

Start with UCLA, which ended the season with championship effort and health but was seeded only fourth after collapsing against powerful Arizona in the Pac-12 tournament final Saturday night.

The Bruins will have a first-round breather Thursday in Portland, Ore., against an Akron team judged to be the 127th best in the country. The only question in that game will be, what the heck is a Zip?

The complete 68-team bracket for the 2022 NCAA men’s basketball tournament.

But then it gets pretty tough, pretty fast.

Their second-round game probably would be against St. Mary’s, a smart team with the 12th-ranked scoring defense in the country. The Gaels have wins against Gonzaga and Oregon, neither of which the Bruins could beat. The Gaels also have March’s secret sauce — a trio of veteran guards in Alex Ducas, Logan Johnson and Tommy Kuhse.

It would be a tough game against what is likely to be a St. Mary’s-heavy crowd. If the Bruin survive, they then would travel to Philadelphia for an East Regional that surely will feel like a slow climb up the “Rocky” steps.


Their first opponent there probably would be defending champion Baylor, which flew under the radar for much of the year, but the Bears still can fly. They beat Kansas, Villanova, Michigan State and Iowa State. Freshman guard Kendall Brown will be a first-round NBA pick. They’re primed again.

USC guard Drew Peterson drives past UCLA guard Jules Bernard during a Bruins' win.
USC guard Drew Peterson, right, drives past UCLA guard Jules Bernard during a Bruins’ win on March 5 at Pauley Pavilion.
(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

If UCLA could knock off the champions, standing between the Bruins and the Final Four probably would be an even bigger hurdle: a Kentucky team that spent much of the winter as the most dangerous in the nation. The Wildcats feature the probable Wooden Award winner, rebounding machine and inside force Oscar Tshiebwe. They can hit the Bruins where they hurt the most.

If UCLA still is standing after two weekends of battles and can swagger again into the Final Four? Probably waiting for them in New Orleans would be Gonzaga, which beat the Bruins by 20 this season after winning on a 40-foot, overtime buzzer-beater in last year’s Final Four.

Man, that would be some rematch of a rematch, right? But the Bruins need to handle worst things first.

Then there’s USC, which, despite its school-record 26 wins, lost three of its last four games and beat only one ranked opponent all season. The Trojans paid for their big-game struggles with a seventh seed and a first-round date in Greenville, S.C., against savvy Miami.


The Hurricanes are one of those veteran transfer-led schools like USC last year. The Hurricanes feature guard Charlie Moore, who’s attending his fourth school in his sixth college season. Their experience led to wins at Duke, at Virginia Tech and at home against North Carolina. They easily could wear down a Trojans team that already appears weary.

USC posted 26 wins this season, but the Trojans’ inconsistent play down the stretch means they’re playing inconsistent Miami team in the NCAA tournament.

March 13, 2022

But Enfield has done arguably his best coaching this year after losing star Evan Mobley to the NBA, so the Trojans could pull off the victory, just in time for a more sizable task.

Hello, Auburn. Yeah, that Bruce Pearl-coached team had an abbreviated stay in the SEC tournament but spent all year around the top of the polls and has one of the tournament’s best players in possible No. 1 draft pick Jabari Smith. The Tigers are incredibly talented and experienced and are going be the toughest of outs.

If USC can overcome those odds and advance to the Midwest regional in Chicago? Um, let’s talk then.

If nothing else, the two tournament-tested coaches are ready.

Cronin is thrilled that his team’s season-long injury plague has disappeared and excited about how the Bruins competed against a possible national-champion Arizona team.

“What’d we teach you last year, you know?” Cronin asked reporters Sunday. “It’s all how we start playing now. You just gotta win one at a time … you start thinking about whoever you have a chance to play after that, you’ve got problems.”


Texas Tech edged UCLA for a higher seeding in the NCAA tournament’s East Region. The Bruins begin a new March Madness run Thursday against Akron.

March 13, 2022

Enfield embraces the challenges and feels his Trojans are smart and experienced enough to handle them. They were, after all, 10-1 in games decided by five or fewer points. And four of their five starters played in last year’s tournament

“I’m just really happy about the progress of our team and where we are right now,” he told reporters Sunday. “It’s a credit to our players. They did a terrific job this season.”

Oh, yeah, don’t forget the third local team to qualify for the tournament, Dedrique Taylor’s surprising Titans from Cal State Fullerton. The Big West tournament champions will have a shot to end a legendary coaching career when they face Duke and retiring Mike Krzyzewski in the first round.

If the Titans win that game in one of the biggest upsets in tournament history, they will advance to the second round to probably play … who cares? Cal State David will have toppled Coach Goliath!

Let the madness begin.