I suppose that many if not most of Bruin Nation, myself included, were a bit disappointed when it was announced that UCLA – the Pacific-12 Conference’s regular season champion and finalist in the Pac-12 tournament – was chosen as a six seed in the NCAA Tournament’s South Region will play against a tough Big Ten in Minnesota while Arizona, who was beaten not twice but three times by the Bruins, including in the tournament semi-finals, will get to stay in the West Region and play a mid-major team in Belmont in San Jose, CA that they will be clearly favored to beat.
In fact, many had agreed with me when I stated that the NCAA Men’s Tournament Selection Committee should have switched UCLA’s and Arizona’s spots, as that would have been more fitting for the body of work that the two teams had put together this season.
But as the cliche goes, it is what it is, as Ben Howland’s team will be shipped out to the Erwin Center on the campus of the University of Texas in Austin on Friday evening to take on the 11th-seeded Golden Gophers in what is technically the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
On the bright side, at least the Bruins were not stuck with a 12-seed as Oregon, who beat UCLA to win the Pac-12 Tournament title and fought the Bruins tooth and nail in the regular season, ending up in second place, was.
Led by veteran coach Tubby Smith, who led the Kentucky Wildcats to a national championship a few years back, at 20-12 Minnesota has had an up-and-down season, starting out 15-1 and winning their first three Big-10 conference games before inconsistency arose as the Gophers, who are led by Andre Hollins and his 13.9 points per game and Trevor Mbakwe’s 8.7 rebounds per contest, have lost seven of their last ten, finishing seventh in their conference and losing in the first round of the Big-10 Tournament.
At first glance, this would be encouraging news for an opponent in the Big Dance, but a team that is reeling means nothing for UCLA as with Jordan Adams unavailable due to that broken foot suffered in the Pac-12 Tourney against Arizona, the team being forced to use a paltry six-man rotation, and with the Bruins’ main weakness – rebounds – being a Minnesota strength as those Gophers from Minneapolis are eighth in the country in rebounding margin, well…
I reckon that few observers, pundits, and fans will be giving UCLA (25-9) much of a chance.
If the Bruins are to have any shot of winning, Shabazz Muhammad absolutely must have a huge day, to be the heralded player that he was touted as when he signed as the top recruit out of high school.
Not that he hasn’t done well as he leads UCLA in scoring at 17.8 points per game, but with his backcourt mate on crutches, the guard must step up and do what leaders and stars do – not let his team lose – along with senior point guard Larry Drew II, who has likewise done very well in Westwood as the North Carolina transfer, who won an NCAA title with the Tar Heels in 2009, broke the Bruins’ single season record for assists this year and has been a rock for Howland for the bulk of this season.
Drew also provides something else that will be extremely beneficial for UCLA: Experience in the Big Dance, as the Bruins missed the NCAA Tourney last season and has not made it past the first weekend since their last Final Four appearance in 2008.
Summing up the attitude that will be sorely needed starting Friday, Drew said, “We just have to believe in ourselves and go play.”
Meanwhile, while I’m sure that Howland will ignore it as he prepares his team this week, there are rumors, as Bill Plaschke wrote in the Los Angeles Times, that the Bruin coach, unless he reaches at minimum the Sweet Sixteen, will be on his way out as according to Plaschke:
“There is talk that the athletic department, for both basketball and business reasons, wants this season to be Howland’s last. There is word that a $2.3 million buyout is already in place…No official will publicly confirm any of this, but privately, Bruin boosters already are lining up candidates…”
Considering that this man had signed arguably the nation’s top recruiting class, won 25 games, a regular season conference championship, beaten his main competition in said conference thrice, and gotten his team back into the NCAA Tournament after a sub-par 2011-2012, to fire Howland now – despite issues with his gruff approach and not being able to keep quite a few of his players from transferring (read: Josh Smith and Tyler Lamb during this season alone) – would be extremely unfair.
It would send a message to basketball coaches that they can win well over 20 games and a conference crown and take their team to the NCAA Tournament, including the Final Four on multiple occasions, and still get fired, which in my opinion would scare many qualified people from coming to Westwood.
Indeed, with the amount of adversity that the Bruins’ head coach has faced this year and with his team persevering in spite of that, Ben Howland deserves to be rewarded with another year at the helm, another chance to get the recruits – namely some big men who can make some significant contributions right away – that is needed and to get UCLA to reach the potential and the standards that John Wooden set.
But that’s only my view of all of this, as the only man whose opinion counts in this issue is athletic director Dan Guerrero’s.
And I – and I’m sure nobody else – wants to jump the gun before seeing how the Bruins fare in this year’s tourney, so…
Fill out your office pool brackets, and let’s see how things unfold.
UCLA’S FIRST OPPONENT IN THE NCAA TOURNAMENT:
Minnesota Golden Gophers (#11 seed), Erwin Center, Austin TX
Friday, March 22nd, approximately 6:45 p.m.
TV: Tru TV
LET’S HEAR IT L.A. HUBBERS – HOW DO YOU THINK THE BRUINS WILL DO IN THIS YEAR’S BIG DANCE?