This entire tournament is trouble for UCLA, but so it goes for the rest of the field. It has been an exceptionally bizarre season of college basketball and no one team is safe or a lock to advance deeply into the tournament.
This is also the time of year when there is no quarter asked and none given. The fact that UCLA lost Jordan Adams—their second best scorer and third best player—on the last play of the conference tournament semi-finals, will garner them exactly zero sympathy from their opponents.
It has come time to eat the wounded if the wounded can no longer defend themselves.
The Bruins are in a bracket filled with implacable foes, including multiple teams who have beaten them already, two traditional powers, a rising mid-major in VCU and a team in Michigan from the Big Ten that earlier in the season was the no. 1 ranked team in the country.
So, we go once more into the breach dear friends, with everything placed in the balance. These are five teams that could knock UCLA out if the Bruins play well enough to advance into the mad dance of March.
The no. 11 seeded Golden Gophers are going send senior Trevor Mbakwe—their hulking strongman power forward and the Big Ten's leading rebounder at 8.7 a game—into the post like some angry, bellowing water buffalo to harass UCLA's finesse front line.
Overall, the man-to-man test is going to come in the post with David and Travis Wear, Shabazz Muhammad and Tony Parker—who Ben Howland said was going to play at least 10 minutes in his first tournament game—called on to answer the challenge.
Where it is not Mbakwe devouring rebounds, it will be Rodney Williams, a long-limbed 6'7'' senior forward and an explosive, controlled leaper, creating match up problems for a UCLA team without an athlete to match his ability and size.
The Gophers have also used Elliot Eliason this season—a 6'11'' sophomore center—around 13 minutes a game. He may see more minutes against UCLA, a team that on its soft days has been overpowered by big post players working close to the rim.
The Gophers are the best offensive rebounding team in the rugged Big Ten at 14.9 a game, and the best team in terms of rebounding margin at plus-8.9. UCLA has had their struggles trying to cap defensive stops with defensive rebounds, surrendering commodity quantities of second and third chance points at various points during the season.
Defensively, Williams and Mbakwe are third and fourth in conference in blocks per game. To off-set that advantage, UCLA will have to leverage the intelligence of their basketball players—and most of them as a rule are savvy—to try and put the Gophers into foul trouble, taking players off the floor and manufacturing points in the bonus.
The Gophers will also platoon a deep line of guards with the two Hollins, Andre and Austin, along with Joe Coleman and Julian Welch. Andre and Austin are the team's top two scorers at 13.9 and 10.6 points per game, just ahead of Williams and Mbakwe at 10.3 and 10, respectively.
UCLA should be able to counter the guards with Larry Drew II, Kyle Anderson and Norman Powell playing heavy minutes. Since it is the tournament, there is nothing to save your players for, and these three are going to have to be ready to run in heavy rotations for close to 40 minutes against the Golden Gophers.
In certain knee-jerk circles of bracketology, this has already become a trendy upset game with the Gophers getting the better of the Bruins in a bad match-up scenario for UCLA. But this is an eminently winnable game for UCLA.
The Gophers could be a sleeper sultan of the South Bracket, but their inconsistency over the season has been impossible to explain. There is no denying the Gophers have gone soft over the last month and a half, with a 5-11 record in their last 16 and bad losses to Nebraska and Purdue before a first round exit from the conference tournament.
Minnesota can claim three really good wins on the year, over top ranked Indiana on Feb. 26 in Minneapolis, 77-74; over Wisconsin on Feb. 26; and earlier in Dec. over Michigan State. They can claim one respectable road win in a Jan. 9, 84-67 victory over Illinois.
As for the rest of the season, they are 3-5 against the RPI Top 25 and 5-8 overall against the top 50.
The Gophers have an enormous proclivity to commit turnovers and have a margin of minus-1.03 on the season. UCLA will badly miss the services of Jordan Adams here, the Pac-12's leading pilfer man with 2.2 a game. Between Drew II, Anderson and Powell the Bruins are still good for nearly four steals a game.
In addition to that, UCLA takes good care of the ball with a top five assist-to-turnover ratio at 1.46.
This game will be a tight, brutal battle from wire-to-wire, but UCLA has the personnel to beat the Gophers if they come to the arena with the calm nerve to perform in the do or die conditions. If they escape out of the first round, the Bruins will likely find an old foe waiting for them in the second.
This is an old and bitter enemy, a team still coached by Billy Donovan, whose 2006 and 2007 teams on their way to national championships summarily dispatched UCLA from the Final Four—and then beat the Bruins again in the second round of the 2011 NCAA Tournament.
The third seeded Gators have played in back-to-back Elite Eights, and have looked on several nights this season like the best basketball team in America. Florida enters this tournament as the No. 10 overall seed.
The Gator boys have the best scoring margin in the country at plus-18.6 off of 71.9 points per game. That is an amazing differential and it is possible because of Florida's oppressive defense, which holds opponents to 53.3 points, third best nationally. But UCLA scores nearly 75 points a game, which is 24th most in America.
This Florida team also has had its issues with consistency, and has been beaten by both a common opponent, and lost several times to inferior teams, including Ole Miss in the SEC Championship game Sunday.
Florida lost to Arizona on Dec. 15 in Tucson—a place UCLA not only crushed the Wildcats in—but also a team the Bruins beat three times consecutively on the season.
The Gators get balanced scoring from two front line players, 6'10'' senior Erik Murphy at 12.7, and 6'9'' junior Patric Young at 10.6. Two backcourt players round out their key contributors in senior Kenny Boynton at 12.3, and senior MIke Rosario at 12.1.
UCLA will be at a disadvantage here in terms of experience, playing a team with seasoned players and a lot of time together "in theater." But this Gators team has been soft on the glass and is 137th ranked rebounding team in the country.
If the Bruins finesse front line can play with harder mentality they have shown at times in the latter parts of the season, and big Tony Parker can make the most of his minutes under the rim, the Bruins are a good enough scoring team to knock the wobbly Gators off their rock in the sun and back into the cold water.
Should UCLA reach the Sweet 16, they will probably find waiting one of two teams who have beaten them already.
The one—San Diego State—UCLA can definitely handle in the rematch. The other, Georgetown—the seventh overall seed in the tournament—will present a much stiffer test.
Against San Diego State on Dec. 1, UCLA played with substandard intensity and poor defensive execution. The Bruins were scorched by the Aztecs electric wing, Jamaal Franklin, and were never able to take control of the game.
Should UCLA get here and face seventh seeded San Diego State, the outcome—with the Aztecs trailing off some as the season progressed, and UCLA finding their stride—should be different.
The Bruins lost to second seed Georgetown 78-70 in a November game in Brooklyn, NY. The Hoyas burned UCLA that night where they were most vulnerable: on the glass and on the weak-side of their defense, where the Hoyas executed that back door oriented hybrid Princeton offense with splendid efficiency.
Georgetown also got a big performance from Otto Porter, their national player of the year candidate. Porter had 18 points, 11 rebounds, five assists, five blocks and three steals on the night.
UCLA was a far different team in November, and the quality of their team defense has improved immensely. However, Georgetown's offensive patience and the skill of what is a generally experienced team will make the rematch easily as difficult to win as the original.
Kansas is the midwest's top seed and the tournament's second overall seed behind only Louisville. The Jayhawks play with experience all over the floor and a superstar redshirt freshmen in Ben McLemore.
The last time UCLA and Kansas met in the NCAA Tournament, things were different. The 2007 UCLA team was a No. 2 seed and smothered the No. 1 seeded Jayhawks 68-55 in the West Regional Final to reach a second consecutive Final Four.
That was when everyone still loved Ben Howland and believed in what he had brought to the program. That is no longer the case for a large contingent of UCLA fans who have turned on the coach and speak about him now—unfairly—in only disparaging and insulting terms.
If this UCLA team gets this far, it is because of either incredible luck, incredible play, or a potent combination of both. Kansas—with 7-foot Jeff Withey inside, McLemore on the wing and experienced ball handlers in Elijah Johnson and Travis Releford to go with a sort of gumby glue guy in Kevin Young—would be exceptionally difficult for these baby Bruins to beat.
For UCLA to win, they would have to execute that defense to a "best performance" level, and running at their Pac-12 best in pace offense while shooting the lights out of the gym.