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UCLA basketball team has navigated distractions en route to regional semifinal

They have soared over every obstacle, defeating each team on their schedule while restoring sheen to a brand that had dulled considerably in the more than two decades since the UCLA Bruins last ruled college basketball.

Showtime, once the exclusive realm of the Lakers, has moved to Westwood, where two freshman phenoms have combined with a coach, his son and a talented supporting cast to form the nation's highest-scoring and most entertaining offense.

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Alley-oop passes, thundering dunks and scores that regularly reach triple digits are all part of the fastbreaking package.

"We've had a ton of fun," said Bryce Alford, the senior shooting guard and son of the head coach, "not only as a family but this whole team has been a blast to be around and be a part of."

It's a family that has been largely free of squabbles — but not distractions — as it has moved to within four wins of what would be the school's first national championship since 1995. On Friday night here, the Bruins will face Kentucky in an NCAA tournament South Regional semifinal at FedExForum, a rematch between storied, tradition-rich programs that have combined for 19 national titles. UCLA has won 11, Kentucky eight, and no other school has won more than five.

The Bruins have persevered even through some surrounding commotion. Coach Steve Alford is widely considered a leading candidate for the Indiana job that became available last week, leading to speculation that he may leave one basketball blueblood for another after UCLA's season ends.

Alford grew up a schoolboy hero in Indiana before leading the Hoosiers to the 1987 national title. While repeatedly saying he loves UCLA, Alford has not denied interest in returning to his home state.

It's also expected that UCLA will lose its two freshman stars after this season. Point guard Lonzo Ball is projected as a top-two pick in the NBA draft and power forward TJ Leaf has been pegged as a borderline lottery selection, meaning he could be taken among the top 14 picks should he decide to forgo his remaining college eligibility.

Earlier this year, Ball's father, LaVar, prompted backlash from current and former pros by saying his son was already better than Golden State Warriors star Stephen Curry, a two-time most valuable player in the NBA. He also predicted that his younger sons, LiAngelo and LaMelo, would follow their brother from Chino Hills High to UCLA for a year and become No. 1 overall draft picks.

Through it all, Lonzo has simply shrugged and kept leading his team to victory after victory.

"It's pretty normal for me," he said Thursday. "He's been talking like this since I've been born."

Ball and Leaf were openly welcomed by older teammates from the moment the Bruins started preparing for a summer exhibition tour of Australia, knowing they needed an infusion of talent to lift the returning players from the dregs of a 15-17 record the previous season.

"They have done a really good job of bringing those guys in," Steve Alford said, "and letting them know, 'Hey, we need you to do what you do.'"

Ball provided the pass-first mentality that would become the team's trademark, setting a school record with 266 assists on the way to being selected the Pac-12 Conference freshman of the year and a finalist for the Naismith Trophy that goes to the nation's top college player.

"My dad has always told me that scoring is not how a point guard is judged," Ball said, "it's on wins and losses."

Continuous ball movement has resulted in an entertaining style of play and plenty of scoring, and UCLA tops the nation with averages of 90.2 points and 21.6 assists per game. Six players average double figures in scoring, giving the Bruins the balance needed to withstand an off night by one or two of their stars.

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The team trumpeted its arrival as a championship contender in December with a nationally televised victory over then-No. 1 Kentucky on the Wildcats' home court. Attendance then surged inside Pauley Pavilion, where the Bruins played before celebrities that included Jessica Alba, Vince Vaughn and Caitlyn Jenner. Crowds averaged 11,183, the highest since the season after the school's last national championship.

Parallels between that 1995 team and the current cast are striking. Both went undefeated during nonconference play, beating a highly ranked Kentucky team. Both suffered their first loss to Oregon. Both rebounded after a players-only meeting in which defensive deficiencies were addressed.

The present team won 12 of 13 games since back-to-back losses to Arizona and USC in late January. Included in that stretch were triumphs over Oregon, USC and Arizona, the only teams to beat the Bruins this season.

"When they lose, they get in the film room and they get back on the court trying to make things better," Steve Alford said of his players. "When they win, they're doing the same thing. They love basketball, and from a coaching standpoint you love coaching guys like that."

It has been a journey that the team doesn't want to end, and emotions spilled into public view on Senior Night three weeks ago. Bryce Alford sobbed as he hugged his father before their final home game together. Fans stood to cheer the son they have come to embrace and the father they have begrudgingly accepted thanks to three deep NCAA tournament runs in his four seasons as the team's coach.

During last year's dismal season, a plane flew over campus with a banner calling for Steve Alford to be fired.

Turns out he could be out the door soon enough, perhaps leaving behind another banner — the championship kind.

Twitter: @latbbolch

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