In 2014, the UCLA Bruins basketball team looked so great to the point that one would find it hard to believe that it was in its first year with a new head coach, with Steve Alford manning the helm after 10 years of Ben Howland roaming the sidelines. The team finished with an overall record of 28-9 (12-6 Pac-12), won the Pac-12 Tournament, and entered the big dance as a No. 4 seed. There, they lost to a red-hot Florida Gators squad in the Sweet Sixteen, and have gotten that far once again.
But the difference this year is that the shoe is now on the other foot. UCLA entered this year’s tourney as a No. 11 seed, and has played exceptionally well up to this point, sealing a date with the No. 2 Gonzaga Bulldogs in Houston on Friday night. Given how one plays in the Pac-12 and the other plays in the relatively non-competitive West Coast Conference (WCC), this game seems open-and-shut.
It’s not that at all. Many forget that UCLA lost three key starters to the NBA after last season: Zach Lavine, Jordan Adams and Kyle Anderson. Losing that dynamic trio was enough to have the team stumble to a regular season mark of 19-12 (11-7 Pac 12), good enough for fourth in the conference. After losing to the red-hot Arizona Wildcats in the conference tournament semi-finals, despite an incredible effort, all that really kept UCLA in the big dance picture were a signature win over Utah on January 29 and a strong finish to the regular season.
On top of that, let’s not forget that the Bruins lost to Gonzaga in non-conference play back on December 13, kicking off a losing streak for UCLA that would last five games.
Based on how UCLA has played recently, however, it’s like they’re a different team. Coach Alford’s up-tempo offense is in full swing, and he’s enjoying his best success as a head coach after stints with New Mexico, Iowa, Missouri State and Division III Manchester University. Over two tournament games against Southern Methodist and UAB, the Bruins are averaging 76 points per game, just a little bit over their seasonal average of 72 (62nd in the nation). Moreover, the team is shooting an eye-popping 51.5 percent from the field, after shooting just 44 percent for the regular season.
Simply put, UCLA’s record doesn’t speak to the level of talent on the team, even if three former players did leave for the NBA after last season. In fact, this year’s roster seems to be doing just fine without them.
Senior guard Norman Powell (16.4 PPG) is an excellent slasher who throws down great dunks despite being just 6’4″. Freshman Kevon Looney (11.6 PPG, 9.2 RPG) and junior Tony Parker (11.4 PPG, 6.6 RPG) own the area under the basket and play an incredible physical game. If sophomore and coach’s son Bryce Alford (15.6 PPG, .392 3P%) is left open in three-point range, all teams can do is hold their collective breath and hope for a miss.
And in spite of such great play in the tournament through two games and playing in a superior conference to that of Gonzaga, UCLA still enters Friday’s game as eight-and-a-half point underdogs. Granted, this year’s Gonzaga team ranked 10th in the nation in scoring (79.1 PPG), sixth in assists (16.5 APG) and first in field goal percentage (.524), and can easily keep up with the up-tempo pace of the Bruins. Mark Few is also looking to advance past the Sweet Sixteen for the first time in 16 seasons as Gonzaga’s head coach, so it’s certain that his players will be out for blood from the get-go.
This means that Friday’s tilt between UCLA and Gonzaga will be decided on one thing: heart. Whichever team wants it more will advance to the Elite Eight and play for a spot in the Final Four. Given how UCLA is running like a freshly oiled machine and Gonzaga has been making their opposition look like AAU teams at times, this one is a high contender to come down to the wire.
If UCLA can control the paint (26th in the nation in rebounding) and make baskets consistently, not to mention slow down Gonzaga’s fast-paced offense, then there could certainly be cause for celebration in Westwood.
*Section Photo credit to Ethan Miller, Getty Images; Featured Photo (above) credit to Joe Nicholson, USA Today Sports.