UCLA is peaking when it matters most.
After losing their Pac-12 regular-season finale in embarrassing fashion to last-place Washington State, the Bruins strung together three consecutive quality victories to win their first conference tournament since the 2007-08 season.
There have been numerous doubts about the outlook for UCLA this season, but the Bruins proved that they are determined to excel in the postseason by defeating the No. 4 team in the nation, Arizona, which defeated the Bruins in their first matchup, in the Pac-12 tournament final.
Yes, this team still has a few concerning issues that may inhibit glory in the NCAA tournament.
The young bench is still inconsistent. Its frontcourt weaknesses can be capitalized upon by more physical teams. Poor transition defense can still haunt it.
However, the Bruins possess something they haven’t for quite some time in March: determination.
With first-year head coach Steve Alford at the helm, UCLA has employed a much more positive attitude than it did in the final few years of Ben Howland’s reign.
By keeping his team loose but engaged, Alford has transformed the Bruins into a team with genuine passion to win as a team.
Never was that more apparent when senior forward Travis Wear scurried to lunge at a loose ball with the score tied at 68 late in the Pac-12 title game.
It was Jordan Adams’ clutch three shortly after that pushed UCLA ahead of Arizona and to eventual victory, but it was hustle plays like Wear’s scrambling for a loose ball that ultimately boosted the Bruins to a landmark win.
UCLA’s hustle in the conference tournament was one facet of the Bruins’ impressive all-around display in Las Vegas.
In addition to a morale-boosting win over Arizona, UCLA beat Oregon and Stanford by a margin of 44 points after compiling a collective scoring margin of plus-four in the Bruins’ four matchups against the teams in the regular season.
The Bruins also shot a combined 60.6 percent in those two games and would go on to score 75 points against Arizona, which allowed 58.1 points per game and was considered one of the best defensive teams in the country.
UCLA is surging, and in the month of March, that gives the Bruins vital momentum heading into the NCAA tournament.
Nonetheless, before fans start lining the streets of Westwood in anticipation of another Final Four run like the Bruins went on the last time they won the conference tournament, consider this:
The NCAA tournament is all about matchups.
And this year, the same team that prevented UCLA from notching its 12th NCAA title in both 2006 and 2007 may very well thwart the Bruins’ hopes of making a deep tournament run after a five-year lull.
That’s right, Florida fans may be rubbing in a UCLA loss with the Gator Chomp once again.
While the Bruins have a considerable chance to make a run to the Sweet 16, facing Tulsa in the round of 64 and the winner of VCU and Stephen F. Austin in the round of 32 in the South Region, UCLA will face Florida in the Sweet 16, barring an improbable upset from Colorado or Pitt in the round of 32.
There’s a reason the Gators are hailed as the No. 1 overall seed.
Florida not only is a battle-tested team with the best RPI in the nation (.670), but also lost only two games all season long, both of which were single-digit defeats to teams in the RPI Top 25: Wisconsin (sixth) and Connecticut (23rd).
Apart from the daunting fact that they haven’t lost a game since a one-point loss to UConn on December 2, the Gators are one of the top defensive teams in the nation, even more formidable on the defensive end than Arizona.
This season, Florida only allowed an average of 57.9 points per game, which is the third best in the nation. Billy Donovan’s squad also won its games by an average of 12.8 points (10th in the nation).
Nonetheless, while UCLA is statistically overmatched and anticipated to fall short if it should face Florida in the Sweet 16, it will be a tightly contested matchup unlike the Gators’ 16-point shellacking of the Bruins in the 2006 NCAA championship.
As talented and highly regarded as Florida is, UCLA will give the Gators a run for their money if it can sustain its free-flowing offense.
Florida has one of the best defenses in the nation, but UCLA has one of the nation’s top offenses, scoring an average of 81.8 points per game (11th in the nation).
The Bruins are also armed with 6’9” point guard Kyle Anderson, who can single-handedly terrorize opposing defenses with his offensive versatility.
Defense typically prevails in a matchup of prolific offenses and defenses, but as was demonstrated in the Pac-12 tournament final, the better defensive team can be topped with a combination of steady offense and alert play.
That UCLA is entering the tournament following its best win of the season is another factor working in its favor.
As we stand on the precipice of the madness that will ensue later this week, there’s a minuscule chance the Bruins return to the Final Four this year.
However, they may just bring back hope that this program’s status as a national powerhouse can be resurrected.
That is, if they haven’t already.