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No. 3 hasn't been a charm for UCLA Coach Steve Alford in NCAA tournaments

No. 3 hasn't been a charm for UCLA Coach Steve Alford in NCAA tournaments
A third seed hasn't always worked out for UCLA Coach Steve Alford, whose Bruins are a No. 3 seed in this year's NCAA tournament. (Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

History has repeated itself in the cruelest way for Steve Alford as a heavy favorite in the NCAA tournament.

The teams he's coached have been awarded a No. 3 seeding on three previous occasions. They've lost in the first round twice. And that's not even counting the time Alford played for Indiana and his third-seeded Hoosiers lost to Cleveland State, a flop chronicled in the book "A Season on the Brink."

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Could the early exits be an uh-oh omen for Alford's third-seeded UCLA Bruins heading into their first-round game against Kent State on Friday at the Golden 1 Center? Not necessarily.

"It's different circumstances. It's different teams," Alford said. "I know what I've got in this team. We've got good experience; we've got a good blend. This is a high skill set team."

All true, though those descriptions also applied to Iowa when Alford coached the Hawkeyes in the 2006 NCAA tournament. That team was led by four seniors and had won five consecutive games, sweeping its way through the Big Ten Conference tournament on the way to a first-round matchup against Northwestern State.

The Demons bedeviled the Hawkeyes, rallying from a 17-point deficit in the final 8 1/2 minutes to prevail on a corner three-pointer with five-tenths of a second left.

"That was a shock to that team," Alford said. "About everything that could have gone wrong in that game went wrong."

Aspirations weren't as high in 2013 for Alford's New Mexico Lobos, a team that Alford said "was just trying to build momentum in postseason play." Things ground to a halt quickly when Harvard outplayed them in the final minutes for its first NCAA tournament victory.

Alford's Lobos did beat Montana when they received a No. 3 seeding in 2010 before losing to Washington in the next round. The coach's highest seeding at UCLA before this season was No. 4 in 2014, when the Bruins reached a regional semifinal.

Historically, a third-seeded team has lost to a No. 14 in the first round 21 times in 128 chances (16.4%), most recently when West Virginia fell to Stephen F. Austin last season.

UCLA has become a trendy pick — not only to avoid a first-round upset, but to win the national championship, something that doesn't bother Alford given where the Bruins were last March.

"This time last year we weren't playing, and all of a sudden you're picked to win the tournament?" Alford said. "That means you've had a really good year and I appreciate the efforts that our players have gone through, and that's where we should be."

UCLA sophomore guard Aaron Holiday, who will be making his NCAA tournament debut, acknowledged that it can be hard not to look ahead in a South Regional that includes fellow basketball bluebloods Kentucky and North Carolina.

"Obviously you're looking forward to certain games and all that, but you have to take it one game at a time," Holiday said. "If you lose one, you're done."

Night moves

Playing in the final first-round game in the NCAA tournament has its benefits. It can sort of feel like a bye into the second round.

By the time the ball is hoisted into the air for the tip-off of UCLA's game against Kent State, the Bruins will be one of 33 remaining teams without having made one shot or even a pass.

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UCLA got used to staffing the late shift at the Pac-12 Conference tournament, where it was part of the last game on each of the first two days. The field already had been reduced by more than half by the opening seconds of the Bruins' opener against USC.

"I told the guys, 'Hey, there were 12 teams in this thing. Now there's only five,' " Alford said. "So without doing anything, we were down to five."

Of course, starting last means lots of waiting. And that isn't always fun.

"There's a lot of games you're watching and you're seeing all the enthusiasm and excitement, and some of that's good and some of it's like, 'When are we going to play?' " Alford said. "But our guys are eager. I think this is the tournament they've been waiting on."

Said guard Isaac Hamilton: "It gives the freshmen a feel for how March is and how it's going to be, so I kind of take it as a positive."

UCLA's game against Kent State has an estimated start time of 6:57 p.m. PDT, not even close to the latest local tip-off the Bruins have endured. Their exhibition game against Sydney University in August in Australia started just before 3 a.m. Los Angeles time.

Twitter: @latbbolch

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