Steve Alford (USA Today)

How Does UCLA's Path to the Final Four Look?

Mar. 12 -- UCLA did not get the easiest of draws, having to run through a gauntlet of both Kentucky and UNC to advance to the Final Four...

Welp, UCLA ended up with just about the worst case scenario in terms of 3-seed draw, lining up in the South. 

North Carolina and Kentucky might be two of the top four teams in the country as is, and both are in UCLA's draw in the South. In other words, the Bruins might have to go through both of those teams to make the Final Four.

Oregon got the much more preferential Pac-12 out-of-region draw as a 3 seed, ending up in the Midwest with Kansas and Louisville and not a whole lot else.

As it stands, though, it does set up for a somewhat manageable path to the Sweet 16. Below, we'll go through the profiles of UCLA's likely opponents in each round before the Final Four.

Round of 64

Kent State

KenPom rating: 141

Common opponents: lost to Oregon State by 19, Western Michigan by 4

Kent State is a very manageable 14 seed. This isn't a team that you would projects as a likely upset pick. They shoot threes very poorly (just 31% as a team). They're also not one of those really old and experienced mid-majors. Overall, this is a very good draw for UCLA to advance past the first round.

Round of 32

6 seed Cincinnati

KenPom rating: 22

Common opponents: None

This is actually, in theory, a pretty tough Round of 32 matchup. Cincinnati, if you worship at the KenPom altar, is marginally under seeded, but notably, the Bearcats are just a few spots behind UCLA in the ratings. They're a very tough defensive squad, and they play at a very, very slow tempo. Defensively, UCLA will have to clear the defensive glass very well against this team, as Cincinnati builds a lot on its ability to pick up second chance points. Cincinnati has not played a team as high-powered as UCLA is offensively, though, so it'll be interesting to see how that goes. It has to play to UCLA's advantage that this is the second game of the weekend, and Cincinnati won't have tons of time to prepare.

11 seed Kansas State

KenPom rating: 29

11 seed Wake Forest

KenPom rating: 30

Theoretically, both of those teams are way better than their seedings, and could easily beat Cincinnati. Wake would be the more interesting of the two to play against, since they also like to run and have a high-powered offense.

Generally speaking, this is, no matter what, a decently tough Round of 32 matchup for UCLA. KenPom would have UCLA as just a marginal favorite over each of these teams on a neutral floor. Getting this game in Sacramento is key.

Sweet 16

Assuming UCLA has made it through the first two rounds, which doesn't seem like a pure given looking at the potential Round of 32 match ups, things could get very brutal. The most likely to come out of the other side of the bracket is Kentucky, but watch out for Wichita State. The Shockers are wildly under-seeded at 10 -- KenPom has the Shockers as the No. 8 team in the country. They'll be favored over Dayton in the first round, and the game against Kentucky could be close to a pick 'em. Since those two seem most likely, we'll take a look at each of them.

No. 2 seed Kentucky

KenPom rating: 4

Common opponents: UCLA won the first matchup, beat ASU by 40, beat Texas A&M twice badly

Kentucky doesn't look like a wildly better team than when UCLA played the Wildcats and won in December, but doing that twice in a road environment in one season is certainly daunting, and it isn't as if UCLA ran away with that game. Kentucky is white-hot here at the end of the season, having won their last 11 games. It'll almost certainly be another up-and-down game if they play, and UCLA will have to shoot well to win. Kentucky has probably gotten a bit better defensively since December, but UCLA has as well. Kentucky will be favored in this game.

No. 10 seed Wichita State

KenPom rating: 8

Common opponents: Beat Long Beach State by 37.

The Shockers are a grand unknown for most people in college basketball since they haven't played a great schedule, but the advanced ratings systems love them. They've won their last 15 straight, and as we've seen over the year with Gregg Marshall, the Shockers virtually always play way over their seeding. They're a tough defensive squad but also an electric three-point shooting team (third in the nation). They'll absolutely give Kentucky a game, and would be a tough matchup for UCLA as well.

Assuming UCLA makes it through whichever one of those two, it gets rewarded with a team that is going to be a popular favorite to cut down the nets.

Elite 8

Unless UCLA gets wildly lucky, this is going to be North Carolina. The Tar Heels face basically no challenge on their side of the bracket, with the easiest 1 seed draw to the Elite 8.

No. 1 seed North Carolina

KenPom rating: 3

Common opponents: Beat Long Beach State by 26, lost to Kentucky by 3

North Carolina is a very, very good team, and they have some real athleticism that could give the Bruins fits. They're one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the country, so Thomas Welsh and T.J. Leaf will have to be at their absolute peak performance in this one. North Carolina likes to run and can be undisciplined, so if UCLA is sharp offensively, the Bruins could take advantage of the Tar Heels' tendency to want to run. The Bruins are better at playing fast than anyone in the country. It's just going to be a question of how UCLA manages against North Carolina's athleticism, especially on the glass. 

So, to get through to the Final Four, UCLA will have to beat a mediocre Kent State team (fine), an under seeded Cincy/Wake/Kansas State (not so fine, but it's at least in Sacramento), a very athletic Kentucky or wildly under seeded Wichita State in the Sweet 16 (not great, and in Memphis to boot), and then UNC, which is extremely good and athletic, also in Memphis.

It's certainly possible for UCLA to win these games, as the Bruins have won tough games in road environments this year. But the path is certainly daunting, and we'll have to hope that we don't spend the next forever ruefully considering Arizona's draw -- and what might have been.


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