While it would have been nice to get the #1 seed, I don't think Kansas has a much easier road to the Elite Eight than UCLA. Both teams have some potentially tough opponents to face, but I think it's fairly equal on each side of the bracket. Kansas will face either Kentucky or Villanvoa in the second game and that looks to be every bit as tough as UCLA's potential game with Indiana or Gonzaga. Assuming they get past those games, the Jayhawks and Bruins each have reasonably tough, but definitely winnable, games. For Kansas, the Sweet 16 game could be against Virginia Tech or Southern Illinois. For UCLA, the most likely candidates are Duke or Pittsburgh. While the Bruins draw two opponents that have bigger "names," I don't know that those two teams are necessarily any tougher than the Hokies or Salukis.
I also think that UCLA may actually be better off facing Pitt or Duke, as opposed to Virginia Tech or Southern Illinois, because of name recognition. I think the UCLA players are far more likely to be completely focused and ready for Duke or Pitt. Those two teams are obviously well-known to the Bruins, while the other two teams are not traditional powers. I would be more concerned about the Bruin players looking past someone called the Hokies or Salukis than Coach K and Josh McRoberts. One could argue that UCLA shouldn't be looking past anyone after the UW and Cal losses – and that's certainly true – but the Bruins have shown a tendency to get a little complacent when faced with teams that they're "supposed" to beat.
As I said earlier, I think UCLA has a fairly winnable bracket in the west region. Obviously, it's quite possible there will be upsets and the bracket won't go according to form. But for the sake of this analysis, let's assume that everything goes according to seed and UCLA faces the teams they're supposed to face. In the opening game on Thursday, UCLA takes on Weber St., the champion of the Big Sky conference. I only saw Weber St. briefly once this year, so I don't have a good feel for the Wildcats. I do know their leading scorer, David Patten, as I saw him play many times in high school. He started his career at Pepperdine, before transferring to Santa Ana JC and then to Weber St. When he was leaving Pepperdine, Patten was reportedly interested in transferring to UCLA and he played with Arron Afflalo on a summer league team. While Patten has had a very good year at Weber St. – he was named MVP of the Big Sky – he's probably wouldn't play many minutes at UCLA. Therefore, it's probably no surprise that I don't give the Wildcats much of a chance in their game with the Bruins. Whatever chance Weber St. might have had went out the window when UCLA lost to Cal. There is no way that UCLA comes out complacent or flat in the opening game. I expect UCLA to win by more than twenty points.
In the second round game, UCLA will face either Indiana or Gonzaga. Both teams are certainly talented enough to beat UCLA if the Bruins aren't sharp and at the top of their game. Indiana is led by junior D.J. White, a 6-9 post player who can be a load inside. However, White won't be the best big man UCLA has faced and the rest of the Hoosiers aren't real intimidating. I actually think UCLA will probably face Gonzaga in the second round game. Despite losing Josh Heytvelt a couple weeks ago due to drug possession, the Zags are playing good basketball at the moment. During their two wins over San Diego and Santa Clara in the WCC tournament, the Zags played the best defense that I've seen them play in some time. It's almost as if the Zags realize they have to play even harder without Heytvelt and they really picked it up defensively. The one thing that is a little scary about Gonzaga is the fact that their guards can be hard to guard. Derek Raivio and Jeremy Pargo are both quick, talented players who can put up points and cause problems on the perimeter. The Zags frontcourt, though, is just average and I think UCLA would probably be able to handle Gonzaga in a second-round matchup. Hopefully, the Bruins could take care of business in a little easier manner than last year.
In a potential Sweet 16 game, UCLA would likely face either Pittsburgh or Duke. There's no question that Ben Howland has no desire to play against Jamie Dixon and Pittsburgh. The tournament committee says that they don't look for these kind of story lines in putting together the brackets and I'm inclined to believe them. However, conspiracy theorists would seem to have a good point when you see games like this in the brackets. The one thing I would note, though, is that two of the other three seeds (Oregon and Washington State) weren't eligible to play UCLA, as they're both from the Pac-10. The other three seed, Texas A&M, was a team that UCLA already played this season. So maybe the committee didn't have a lot of choice in setting up this potential Pitt/UCLA game.
In any event, I don't think Pittsburgh is a terrible matchup for UCLA. Yes, Pittsburgh is a good team and Jamie Dixon is obviously intimately familiar with everything that Howland and UCLA run. But the opposite, of course, is true as well. In terms or personnel, I don't see the Panthers as presenting really difficult matchups for the Bruins. Senior center Aaron Gray is the leading scorer and rebounder for Pittsburgh, but he's the kind of big man that UCLA has had success against in the past. He's relatively immobile and he's not a real good passer. After Gray, the Panthers don't have any real go-to scorers. They have several players who contribute points, but no guys that really scare you as a Bruin fan. The Pittsburgh defense is solid, but nothing great and their shot selection has been a bit shaky at times. Again, Pittsburgh is certainly not a team that UCLA can look past. But if the Bruins play the way they're capable of playing – smart, intense, energetic and focused basketball – then I think UCLA would have a good shot at beating Pittsburgh.
If Duke advances to play the Bruins in a Sweet 16 game, I really like UCLA's chances. This is not one of the more talented Duke teams and the Bruins match-up well with the Blue Devils. Duke lacks quickness in the backcourt and I think UCLA would be very happy with a Darren Collison/Greg Paulus duel. When he came out of high school, Demarcus Nelson was ranked by many national analysts ahead of Arron Afflalo. Once again, this was a case of the national analysts getting it wrong when it comes to Duke players. For some reason, Duke players consistently get overrated by the national analysts. Arron Afflalo was clearly the better prospect then and he's obviously the better player today. The Bruins would have a big advantage against Duke on the perimeter, and while Josh McRoberts is a talented player inside, I don't see Duke having enough to beat the Bruins. Of course, if the Bruins do get Duke in the Sweet 16 game, there is the worry that they might be playing the game five on eight. Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski does intimidate some officials and it can be very frustrating when the Blue Devils get bad call after bad call. Why this happens when everyone in college basketball is well aware of the problem is a mystery to me, but it's there nonetheless. However, the problems seem to happen more often in Cameron Indoor Stadium. Hopefully, a neutral court would be more likely to result in an evenly called game.
Assuming that UCLA reaches the Elite Eight game, a match-up with Kansas could be very interesting. Of all the teams in the west bracket, Kansas is the one team that is really worrisome. Kansas has enough talent and athleticism to beat UCLA even when the Bruins are playing at their highest potential. In other words, even if UCLA brings its best game against the Jayhawks, it might not be enough. Kansas has multiple future pros on its roster. The Jayhawks have size, quickness, leaping ability, shooters, depth…and they're currently playing well. If the Jayhawks keep playing the way they have been lately, they would present a formidable obstacle for UCLA.
However, that's a big "if." Despite all the talent and athleticism, Kansas is prone to stubbing its toe at inopportune moments. The Jayhawks were bounced early from the last couple tournaments and it wouldn't be a shock if it happens again. They have a tendency to take bad shots and, at times, make questionable decisions. Their defense can be terrific when they're focused and locked in, but it can also break down at times. Also, I think UCLA is the kind of team that gives Kansas problems. Tough, smart, well-coached teams that won't beat themselves have given the Jayhawks problems in the past. If you take away their transition game – and that would be item one on Howland's game plan against Kansas – the Jayhawks can struggle in the halfcourt offense. As I said, their decisions can be shaky and shot selection is iffy. But they are very talented and if UCLA meets Kansas in the Elite Eight, it might be a great game.
All of these projections for future games mean nothing, obviously, if the Bruins don't get back to playing the way they did when they clinched the Pac-10 at Washington State. But assuming the Bruins do regain their focus, energy and intensity (and I think they will), then this bracket is about as good as they could have hoped to get. The projected games don't look easy, but they're certainly winnable and I like UCLA's chances of getting to the regional finals in San Jose.