Few outside UCLA’s locker room believed the Bruins would earn an NCAA tournament bid when selections were made on Sunday. The major tournament projections all had the Bruins on the outside of the field. Most pundits agreed.
Sunday, the team said, would be nerve-wracking. But, UCLA Coach Steve Alford and senior guard Norman Powell both agreed there weren’t 36 teams - - the number of at-large bids given to teams that didn’t earn their conference’s automatic entry -- in the nation better than the Bruins.
They were right. UCLA drew the 11th seed in the South. The Bruins will play sixth-seeded Southern Methodist (27-6), which is coach by former UCLA coach Larry Brown, in Louisville.
The selection committee decided UCLA’s finish outweighed a sluggish start. The Bruins won eight of their last 11 regular-season games, including against Oregon, Stanford and Utah.
UCLA’s early nonconference season was filled with losses, including the 83-44 demolition by Kentucky that was part of a five-game losing streak. There were also nonconference losses to Oklahoma, North Carolina, Gonzaga and Alabama.
UCLA finished just 1-7 against top-25 teams in Rating Percentage Index and 2-8 against the top 50, but its schedule was the toughest in the Pac-12.
The eye test likely helped UCLA’s case. Before the season, Alford said his inexperienced team would be much different in October than in February. He was right. The Bruins won eight of their last 11 games. Tony Parker matured into a force inside. Kevon Looney augmented his game with three-point shooting. Powell took over games.
Twice the Bruins pushed Arizona to the brink. They lost both games but showed they are capable of competing with one of the best teams in the nation.
Afterward, Arizona Coach Sean Miller said he didn’t know if UCLA would get in.
“But quality of team, I mean, no question,” he said.
He was right, too.