After suffering a tragic end in the Pac-12 Tournament this weekend, the UCLA Bruins got some more disappointing news when the word came down on Selection Sunday.
Despite claiming the regular-season title and making it to the conference tourney final, UCLA (25-9, 13-5 Pac-12) was handed a 6-seed by the NCAA selection committee, placing the Bruins in Austin, Texas for the second “first” round. The seeding itself isn’t too surprising, though sliding into a 5-slot seemed possible after the successful run in Vegas. Rather, the location is what has head coach Ben Howland up in arms about the draw.
Of the top-four seeds in the conference tourney, UCLA is the only one packing for a road trip outside of Pac-12 territory. Arizona, a team that the Bruins beat three times this season, nabbed a 6-seed in Salt Lake City, while Cal (12) and Oregon (12) both ended up in San Jose for the first weekend.
For a little perspective, consider what Howland had to say about his team’s river card, and the fate of the Golden Bears.
I’d rather be closer. I would rather be. Honestly, I’d rather be Cal right now playing in San Jose. I’d rather be a 12-seed playing in San Jose. Especially for the fans. For Cal, that’s a great situation. They’re playing at home.
But instead of joining the fun up in Nor Cal, the Bruins have to head to the Lone Star State to matchup with an opponent that makes their draw all the more frustrating.
UCLA will meet 11-seed Minnesota (20-12, 8-10 Big Ten) in Austin on Friday, and the pairing is quite possibly the worst that the Bruins could have gotten. The Golden Gophers are a battle-tested team coming out of the best conference in America. They started out the season 15-1 and own wins over then-No. 1 Indiana, Michigan State, Illinois and Wisconsin.
When you stack that up against the other 11-seeds in the field (Bucknell, Belmont and the winner of Middle Tennessee vs. Saint Mary’s), it’s pretty clear Minnesota is the strongest of the group. The Gaels could certainly toss their name in the mix if they get through the “First Four,” but the Gophers have flashed elite potential at many times this year.
And to make matters worse, Minnesota’s core strength is something UCLA has struggled with the entire season. Led by forward Trevor Mbakwe, UM ranks No. 17 in the nation in rebounding, an advantage that can be life-saving in the month of March. In contrast, the Bruins have been at the bottom of the Pac-12 in rebounding margin all year, and rank No. 97 in the country in boards per game. Mbakwe has the size to create space inside, which is a major reason for his 8.7 RPG. The 6’8″ senior also puts up 10 PPG, and considering they come almost exclusively from inside, that number could end up much larger against the Bruins.
Without the scoring of freshman Jordan Adams, who broke his foot in the Pac-12 semifinal win over Arizona, UCLA will have a hard time surviving a poor performance on the glass. In order to offset their deficiencies boarding, the Bruins will need Shabazz Muhammad, Kyle Anderson and Travis Wear to shoot a high-percentage and pick up the slack on the scoreboard.
Whether or not the Bruins can maintain a high scoring clip over the course of a full tournament remains to be seen, but if they can bring it on Friday they can keep the dream alive for a little longer.
Assuming a vindicating win over Minnesota, UCLA could meet a recent nemesis in the “third” round in the 3-seed Florida Gators. UF has had the Bruins’ tourney number during Howland’s tenure, and a matchup with this year’s SEC champs is the last thing that the fans in Westwood were hoping for.
In addition to topping UCLA in the ’06 and ’07 Final Fours, the Gators sent the Bruins home in the Round of 32 in their last trip to the Big Dance (2010). A fourth meeting with Florida would provide a chance for redemption, but it could also be the latest in a streak of bummers for the Bruins.
All in all, UCLA has to be extremely deflated by its tournament draw, especially given the sad circumstances surrounding Adams’ injury. There is some hope for the Bruins in that both Minnesota and Florida have been declining down the stretch, but earning a ticket to the Sweet Sixteen looks to be a tall task.
Don’t count these Bruins out just yet, but don’t get your hopes up either. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a better outing in Austin compared to the showing vs. Oregon in the Pac-12 final, especially since UCLA had less than 24-hours to run the sets without their second-leading scorer. However, it’s completely plausible that the Bruins can’t overcome the odds against them and bow out after a short stay.
Here’s to hoping for the former, and cheering like crazy until the final buzzer sounds. In a matter of days, we’ll have our answer.