The normal parsing of UCLA’s NCAA tournament fate no longer applied Sunday.
There was relief as the Bruins learned they had been granted one of the 36 at-large entries near the start of the nationally televised selection show … followed by disbelief a few minutes later when the brackets were revealed as part of the show’s revised format.
UCLA was being sent to Dayton, Ohio, for a dreaded play-in game, the first in the school’s storied postseason history. The Bruins (21-11) will play St. Bonaventure (25-7) on Tuesday evening at the University of Dayton Arena. The winner becomes the 11th-seeded team in the East Regional.
The tournament’s first upset might have come in the stomach of UCLA coach Steve Alford.
“It did surprise me that we were last four in, it really did,” Alford said. “I mean, I thought we were soundly in.”
His opinion was shared by several experts who had the Bruins in the main draw of their projected brackets. ESPN analyst Joe Lunardi predicted the Bruins would get a No. 10 seeding in the South Regional; CBS Sports’ Jerry Palm foresaw UCLA receiving a No. 9 seeding in the West Regional.
Alford trumpeted his team’s achievements as having been worthy of a better seeding. The Bruins notched a marquee nonconference victory over Kentucky, split two games with Pac-12 Conference champion Arizona and swept their two-game series with USC, which finished second in the conference but was shockingly left out of the NCAA tournament.
It wasn’t enough.
“We’re 21-11 and we’re one of the last four in,” Alford said with a chuckle, “so it’s not an easy deal.”
The Bruins were left to make hurried travel arrangements, including a Monday flight more than halfway across the country. They will face an opponent that had won 13 consecutive games before falling to Davidson in an Atlantic 10 Conference tournament semifinal Saturday.
The winner of the game between the Bruins and the Bonnies will play sixth-seeded Florida (20-12) in the first round on Thursday in Dallas. The Gators have defeated UCLA three times in the NCAA tournament since 2006, most recently in a regional semifinal in 2014, Alford’s first season.
Skittish Bruins fans can at least take solace that coach Billy Donovan, who presided over all three of those Florida wins, has left the Gators for the NBA’s Oklahoma City Thunder.
UCLA has experienced only one result in the NCAA tournament under Alford, reaching a regional semifinal in 2014, 2015 and 2017 before losing. Getting there again will require an extra dance step, making a lengthy run more improbable for a team that goes only eight deep and has needed star point guard Aaron Holiday to play every second of every game in recent weeks.
“Obviously we’ve got a tough road,” Alford said, “because to advance to the next weekend in this tournament, we’ve got to win three games in one week.”
Extended stays are rare for teams that have to play an extra game in the NCAA tournament.
Of the 28 teams to appear in the play-in games since the opening round was expanded to include four games in 2011, only three have advanced past the tournament’s first week. La Salle (in 2013) and Tennessee (in 2014) advanced to a regional semifinal and Virginia Commonwealth (in 2011) made a memorable run to the Final Four.
USC nearly joined that group last season, beating Providence in a play-in game and defeating Southern Methodist in the first round before falling to Baylor in a back-and-forth battle in the second round.
Alford’s players didn’t seem to care about the extra game, only that there would be one.
“I was just excited to be in, to be honest,” Holiday said after gathering with his teammates in a Pauley Pavilion dining room to watch the selection show.
UCLA freshman forward Kris Wilkes said he had never watched a selection show and didn’t know what to expect. The bulk of the suspense ended quickly when UCLA appeared on the screen as part of the opening segment.
“Man, my heart was beating fast,” Wilkes said. “I couldn’t control it. It was just happening and then waiting to see our name pop up and then it popped up and then everybody got hyped and, you know, it just felt good.”
The Bruins are coming off an inspired stretch in which they defeated USC and Stanford and then played Arizona to a draw for 40 minutes before fading in overtime during their second game in as many days.
The NCAA tournament format would not be quite as grueling, with at least one day between games — though the Bruins can only hope their itinerary includes two flights in the next three days.
“There is no Dallas trip,” Alford said, “unless we take care of our trip to Dayton.”