Roundtable: Here’s what UCLA and USC need to do to earn NCAA tournament success

USC guard Drew Peterson shoots over UCLA guard Johnny Juzang
USC’s Drew Peterson shoots over UCLA’s Johnny Juzang during the Trojans’ 67-64 home victory Feb. 12.
(Kyusung Gong / Associated Press)

Will UCLA and USC call their NCAA tournament runs a success?

Deputy sports editor Iliana Limón Romero moderated a roundtable featuring college writers Ben Bolch, Ryan Kartje, J. Brady McCollough and Thuc Nhi Nguyen, during which the group discussed how the selection committee treated the Bruins and Trojans, keys to success, Final Four picks and more.

What do you think of USC’s and UCLA’s seeding and how far do you think they are capable of going?


Bolch: I think USC got the worst of it given the record-setting regular season — honestly, the Trojans probably should be a No. 5 seed — but now there’s the chance to prove everybody wrong with a stirring run. I think the Trojans will have their one shining moment, beating second-seeded Auburn in the second round, before going down against Wisconsin in the Sweet 16. UCLA was clearly seeded one spot too low given the metrics and the old-fashioned eye test, which is significant because it means the Bruins would have to play top-seeded Baylor in the Sweet 16, assuming neither team is upset beforehand. At the risk of being accused of beat writer’s bias, I think UCLA emerges from the East with a chance to win it all — if the Bruins can win a Final Four rematch against Gonzaga.

Kartje: A No. 7 seed might seem unexpectedly low for a major conference team that won a school-record 26 games this season. But the Trojans lost a lot of steam over the past two weeks, dropping three of their last four games. As Andy Enfield was quick to point out Sunday, those losses came against UCLA and Arizona, two teams capable of winning it all. Still, USC hasn’t shown enough against top teams to warrant more confidence than it received from the committee. It has just two wins over tournament teams, after all. UCLA has far more legitimate complaints, in my opinion — the fourth-seeded Bruins convinced me in Vegas they’re capable of returning to the Final Four. For USC, the path back to the Elite Eight is a brutal one. The first-round matchup with Miami is a coin flip, but beating Auburn and star freshman Jabari Smith is a tall order. I’d be surprised to see the Trojans get to the second weekend.

McCollough: According to Ken Pomeroy’s efficiency metrics, the Bruins are worthy of a low 2 seed. That would be a stretch given their performance this season, but there’s certainly an argument they could have been a 3. But by getting the fourth No. 1 seed, Baylor, UCLA theoretically gets a bit of a break. The Bears are not playing their best entering the tournament and are still wounded from two key injuries. The defending national champs are vulnerable, so overall I think the Bruins should feel good about where they sit. As for USC, the Trojans have struggled down the stretch and did not have a strong strength of schedule, so the No. 7 seed seems about right. I like UCLA’s chances to get to the Elite Eight and think they’ll have a shot at back-to-back Final Fours. I could see USC beating Miami, but Auburn has too much offensive firepower for the Trojans to keep up in the round of 32.

Nguyen: UCLA is worthy of a No. 3 seed, at least giving the Bruins a chance to stay somewhat local in San Diego. But getting to stay out of Gonzaga’s way until the Final Four is a great consolation prize. Maybe it’s just wishful thinking because I want a rematch of last year, but I expect UCLA will return to the Final Four to meet Gonzaga. Repeating last year’s run to the Elite Eight doesn’t look easy for seventh-seeded USC, though, with the long travel and tough draw. The selection committee wasn’t impressed with USC’s school-record 26 wins, many of which came close against even struggling teams. After watching the Trojans barely get by Washington in the Pac-12 tournament, I don’t see how they do much damage in the NCAA tournament.

March Madness is officially here. Here’s everything you need to know about the 2022 NCAA men’s and women’s basketball tournaments.

March 14, 2022

What would a successful NCAA tournament look like for USC and UCLA?

Bolch: Some have said it would be considered a disappointing season for the Bruins if they don’t make it back to the Final Four with everybody back from their NCAA tournament run a year ago. I disagree. There’s too many variables and too much craziness this time of year to assume anything like that. UCLA does need to make it to the second weekend, however, given its talent, postseason experience and coaching. For USC, everything hinges on that second-round game against heavy favorite Auburn. Win that and the Trojans might start soliciting designs for an Andy Enfield statue outside the Galen Center.


Kartje: USC lost a top-three pick and likely NBA rookie of the year from last year’s Elite Eight squad and still managed to win 26 games this season. That, in itself, marks a successful campaign for Andy Enfield as far as I’m concerned. But now that the Trojans are back in the tournament in consecutive years for the first time since 2016, at least one victory seems like a totally fair expectation. Get past Auburn in the second round and then we’re really cooking with gas. Expecting any team to make it to consecutive Final Fours, meanwhile, is probably unreasonable. But for UCLA, you have to think anything short of the Sweet 16 would be a major disappointment.

McCollough: USC spent most of the season hovering around the top 16 in the polls. Still, making the second weekend for the second straight year would be a massive success for Andy Enfield’s program. Advancing past Miami should be considered a success too. The question is a little more complicated for UCLA. Johnny Juzang came back with national championship aspirations, and the Bruins added transfer big man Myles Johnson and five-star freshman Peyton Watson to the mix. UCLA needs to make the Elite Eight to consider this tournament a success, but a loss there will still leave unrealized expectations for many.

Nguyen: Getting to the second weekend and upsetting Auburn in the process would be a fine way to cap this season for this USC team. They shouldn’t celebrate with another non-championship championship banner, but a run to the Sweet 16 while setting a school record in wins after losing a player of Evan Mobley’s stature would be a success. Considering the unforgiving nature of the one-and-done tournament, it feels unreasonable to expect a Final Four-or-bust result for the Bruins. Certainly they have the talent and experience, but it also takes a little bit of luck. They were on the right side of almost every lucky break last year to make that miraculous run from First Four to Final Four, and if the odds aren’t in their favor for a key play, it can’t spoil an entire season. An Elite Eight appearance should be enough to earn the stamp of success, but it will likely still leave Bruin fans disappointed.

This March might be more madness than magic for UCLA and USC, who face tough roads to the Final Four in the Big Easy. Both teams must overcome some stiff competition in their regions to reach the Sweet 16 and beyond.

March 13, 2022

Which teams do USC and UCLA want upset most to help their path?

Bolch: Baylor is frightening but not as frightening as last season, when it could have beaten Usain Bolt and Carl Lewis in a track meet. The team that should scare the Bruins the most on the way to another Final Four is Kentucky, which features electric guard play and a postseason pedigree much richer than UCLA’s since John Wooden retired (with a win over the Wildcats). That means the Bruins should root for Murray State — coach Mick Cronin’s old school — to pull an upset special in the second round to knock out Kentucky.

Kartje: You’ll find no bigger Jacksonville State fans outside of Florida than Andy Enfield and USC. If the Gamecocks are somehow able to knock off Auburn, then the bracket would suddenly open like the Red Sea for the Trojans. But I wouldn’t hold my breath. Jacksonville State only finds itself in the field due to an NCAA rule that kept Atlantic Sun tournament champion Bellarmine, which just recently jumped to Division I, out of the postseason. Their best win this season came against Liberty. Enough said.


McCollough: Obviously, the Bruins would love North Carolina or Marquette to knock off Baylor, but I think the bigger obstacle to a trip to New Orleans is No. 2 seed Kentucky, which looms in the Elite Eight. The Wildcats, featuring monstrous big man Oscar Tshiebwe, haven’t been to the Final Four since 2015, so John Calipari’s program is due. UCLA fans should be monitoring that side of the bracket closely. The Trojans should definitely be hoping that Jacksonville State pulls the huge upset over Auburn.

Nguyen: If Jacksonville State can do the hard work for USC and knock off Auburn, then the Trojans could have a chance to race through the Midwest Region. And while No. 1 seed Baylor may look like the top dog in the East, I agree with Ben and Brady that the Bruins should be most weary of Kentucky and would love some help from their friends across the bracket to knock the Wildcats out early.

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

Who is the X-factor for USC and UCLA?

Bolch: Myles Johnson has emerged as a defensive force over the last few weeks since snagging more playing time from Cody Riley, so Johnson’s contributions on that end should be a given unless he finds himself in foul trouble. The player UCLA needs to step up most is guard David Singleton, who has gone scoreless in four consecutive games while taking only one shot.

Kartje: Isaiah Mobley hit his stride this time last season to elevate USC to another level, and if it has any hope of advancing again this season, he’s going to have to find that stride again very soon. The Trojans’ leading scorer hasn’t always looked like himself over the past two weeks, and his periodic struggles have coincided with a slumping USC offense. Boogie Ellis carried the Trojans on his back during the Pac-12 tournament, but he can’t do it alone. Without a clear star capable of taking over in crunch time, USC needs some combination of Mobley, Ellis and Drew Peterson all playing at their best to keep the offense afloat. Mobley’s versatility makes him the potential centerpiece of that trio, especially if he can start hitting from three-point range again.

McCollough: The Trojans need Boogie Ellis to provide a scoring punch and be assertive offensively to have a chance of making a run. The Bruins will need Cody Riley’s best to anchor their performance in the paint and allow their perimeter players to flourish. Riley was so key to what they were able to do last season and has to step up this tournament.


Nguyen: Boogie Ellis delivered on offense in the Pac-12 tournament with 54 points in two games, but where were Isaiah Mobley and Drew Peterson? Mobley scored nine points in each game while missing all seven of his three-point attempts. Peterson had 20 combined points. Like Ryan said, the Trojans need all three on offense to carry them through the tournament.

Who are your Final Four and championship picks?

Bolch: Before we get to that, can I just say I’m picking Cal State Fullerton to end Coach Krzyzewski’s epic run at Duke? Yes, seriously. Remember, it’s the maddest time of year. As far as the Final Four, I’m going with Gonzaga, UCLA, Arizona and Kansas. In the championship, I’m going with a Pac-12 tournament championship rematch that goes the Bruins’ way in the final minutes.

Kartje: Can you imagine Coach K’s face in wake of that career-ending upset? Classic. I’d pay good money to see that. (Lucky for me, I’ll be there, anyway.)

Watching Arizona closely these past two weeks, I have a hard time envisioning anyone beating the Wildcats at their best. They’re a well-oiled machine, bursting with talent at every position. Gonzaga is absolutely stacked too, and its path to the Final Four seems pretty much paved for it in the West Region. The fact that Iowa is a five seed after its run through the Big Ten tournament tells me no one on that committee watched it handle Purdue in the title game. Give me the Hawkeyes to get out of the Midwest. The East Region seems ripe for some shenanigans, which is why I’m channeling Bill Walton and predicting the Conference of Champions to make up half of the Final Four. UCLA beats Kentucky … only to lose again to Gonzaga in the national semifinal.

McCollough: At first glance, I think Gonzaga has a pretty nice path to the Final Four out west. If the Zags can get by Memphis in the round of 32, I think they coast to New Orleans. I like Kentucky over UCLA in the East. I am intrigued by Iowa in the Midwest because I just love the way the Hawkeyes are unfazed by any deficit and can outscore anybody. And then it’s really hard to bet against Arizona right now. So, Gonzaga vs. Kentucky and Iowa vs. Arizona. Again, early prediction here, but I’ll take Arizona over Kentucky, just like in 1997, with the Pac-12 ending its title drought in football and men’s basketball.


Nguyen: A replay of that Pac-12 championship game between UCLA and Arizona would make a perfect national championship matchup, but, sorry Bruin fans, I think Gonzaga is going to keep the Bruins out again. I’ll take Kansas out of the Midwest to face Arizona in the Final Four, and, ultimately, I think the third time will be the charm for the Bulldogs, who knock off Arizona in the championship game to earn Mark Few his first national championship.