To get back up for the NCAA tournament, UCLA might want to contemplate what happened seven months ago Down Under.
As the Bruins frolicked along the Gold Coast of Australia during a summer exhibition tour, center Thomas Welsh attempted to mount a surfboard. It became an unintended comedy routine for the 7-footer, who continuously splashed into the water. He kept trying anyway, finally putting two feet on the board, if only momentarily.
“I got up a couple of times,” Welsh recalled with a smile upon returning to Los Angeles.
UCLA needs to be similarly undeterred after its wipeout in the Pac-12 Conference tournament served as a jarringly short prelude to what it hopes will be a three-week run in the NCAA tournament. The third-seeded Bruins (29-4) can get back upright starting Friday night with their first-round game in the South Regional against 14th-seeded Kent State (22-13) at the Golden 1 Center in Sacramento.
“If anything,” UCLA shooting guard Bryce Alford said Sunday, “it’s just getting our swagger back a little bit and having that confidence that we can play with anybody.”
There’s no need to change the approach after UCLA became one of college basketball’s most entertaining acts — not to mention most successful teams — before the downturn last week against USC and Arizona. Doing what it does best usually works out fine for the Bruins.
Three-pointers aren’t falling? Keep launching them as if they’re all destined to go in. Turnovers are nearly outnumbering assists? Stay calm and keep passing. Defense seems a little soft? Get down in a stance and talk things out.
UCLA might want to remind itself that it possesses the nation’s most efficient offense, complemented by a defense that had become more than capable until getting overrun by Arizona in the second half Friday. Bruins Coach Steve Alford said he also didn’t like his team’s sluggishness on offense, which may have been at least partially related to a strained left thumb sustained by freshman point guard Lonzo Ball when an airball caromed off his hand out of bounds in the first half.
Ball said his thumb was feeling fine Sunday and proclaimed himself ready to play against Kent State after having made only six of 17 shots while largely being a nonfactor during the Pac-12 tournament.
“We just need Lonzo to be Lonzo,” Steve Alford said. “Go out and be the best player that you are and when he’s at his best, this team is at its best.”
The coach said the upside to not playing for the conference tournament championship was that it allowed freshman power forward TJ Leaf an extra day to heal the sprained left ankle that was encased in a black walking boot Sunday. Leaf, who played in two games after missing most of the previous two games, said he was feeling “great.”
The Bruins will next face a team that’s among the hottest in the country. Kent State has won nine of 10 games and four in a row to capture the Mid-American Conference tournament championship. The Golden Flashes did it in improbable fashion, toppling conference counterparts seeded Nos. 3, 2 and 1 on the way to the title.
Of course, UCLA holds greater aspirations than going 2-0 this season against Kentucky.
“Championship,” Ball said when asked what would constitute a successful NCAA tournament run. “We don’t play to lose.”
Resolve hasn’t been an issue for the Bruins after their previous losses. They bounced back from their first defeat, against Oregon in their Pac-12 opener, to win six consecutive games. Then they shrugged off their only back-to-back setbacks a month later to win 10 straight games while largely fixing their defensive deficiencies.
“I’m not even going to ask them to win 10 in a row,” Steve Alford cracked, “but if they can do what they did after the loss to Oregon, we’ll all be very happy.”
The arc of UCLA’s season has felt as if it’s been heading toward something special since the Bruins traveled to Australia, which allowed them to do more than pet koalas and traverse the top of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. The trip provided 10 extra practices and three exhibition games, letting Ball, Leaf and Ike Anigbogu get many of their freshman moments out of the way long before the meaningful portion of the season.
It also gave Steve Alford a head start building his offense around Ball, a once-in-a-generation talent who has perfectly integrated the finesse of shooters Bryce Alford, Isaac Hamilton and Welsh with the brawn of Leaf and Anigbogu. There were never any class divisions as the juniors and seniors openly welcomed the freshmen who could help them get back to the NCAA tournament after last season’s losing record.
The Bruins seem to genuinely like each other, their connection reflected in wide smiles as they serenaded the UCLA women’s basketball team two weeks ago with a roll call in the lobby of the team hotel in Tucson as female players departed for a game against Arizona.
Now they’re headed off themselves, hoping their itinerary includes stops in Sacramento and Memphis on the way to Glendale, Ariz., for the Final Four. That would qualify as the most exotic destination of all for a team seeking its first national title in 22 years.