Soon after pairings for the NCAA Basketball Tournament were announced Sunday, March 16, analysts around the nation agreed on one point.
UCLA has the easiest road to the Final Four, many concluded. Some, including Seth Davis and Clark Kellogg on CBS’ selection show, picked UCLA to become the national champion.
UCLA Coach Ben Howland disagreed that anything will be easy for his team.
“There is no easy road in the NCAA Tournament,” he said.
But UCLA appeared to be in an enviable position when it began play in the 65-team field in a first round game against Mississippi Valley State in Anaheim’s Honda Center.
UCLA got what it wanted, the No. 1 seed in the West, by adding the Pac-10 Conference Tournament championship to its regular season championship. It gets two games in Anaheim and a short trip to Phoenix the next weekend should it advance.
In addition, although every region has some other quality high seeds, UCLA’s toughest test, on paper at least, will be No. 2 seed Duke, which has a grand basketball tradition but doesn’t have a strong inside game this season.
Duke was sent West as a punishment for failing to reach the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament championship game. And No. 3 West seed Connecticut was sent West for similarly falling short in the Big East Conference Tournament.
UCLA (31-3) has won at least 30 games in three straight seasons, a feat matched only by Memphis, which earned a No. 1 seed along with North Carolina and Kansas.
Should all four top seeds make it to San Antonio for the Final Four, the brackets will pit UCLA against Memphis and North Carolina against Kansas in the semi-final games.
Injuries could be troublesome for UCLA, but Howland was confident early in the week that center Kevin Love will be fine despite suffering back spasms in the conference championship game. And Howland said forward Luc Richard Mbah a Moute was making good progress in recovering from a sprained left ankle.
If UCLA wins its opener it will play the winner of BYU-Texas A&M. Last season it narrowly defeated Texas A&M in the Wooden Classic in Anaheim, and Howland said the Aggies were the most physical team on UCLA’s schedule.
However UCLA point guard Darren Collison returned and is playing superbly now while Texas A&M point guard Acie Law progressed to the NBA.
Among other NCAA Tournament match-ups, there’ll be an intriguing first round game between USC and Kansas State featuring freshmen phenoms O.J. Mayo and Michael Beasley.
The Pac-10 Conference has six teams in the NCAA field, one less than it wanted with Arizona State being left out. Cal State Fullerton qualified from the Big West Conference and the West Coast Conference, which is normally limited to one or two teams, has Tournament champion San Diego, Gonzaga, and St. Mary’s.
UCLA will be attempting to reach the Final Four for the third consecutive season. Florida, which beat UCLA the last two years, didn’t qualify for the tournament this time, assuring that there will be a new national champion.
The last time UCLA was awarded a No. 1 seed was in 1995. That team, coached by Jim Harrick, won the Bruins’ last national championship.