LOUISVILLE—In December they were an embarrassment, a dark chapter in the storybook.
Steve Alford would surely be fired. UCLA, the proud owner of more championships than any program in NCAA Basketball history, was officially a “football school.”
On Selection Sunday, the Bruins went from bubble team to Big Brother, yet another power-conference titan to undeservedly earn a ticket to the big dance, denying would-be Cinderellas like Temple and Murray State.
But following the first wave of madness, UCLA finds itself in the Sweet 16 for consecutive seasons for the first time since Russell Westbrook, Kevin Love, and company were regularly carrying the team to the Final Four.
A controversial goaltending call against SMU and a blowout of UAB has rewarded the Bruins the daunting challenge of second-seed Gonzaga, a team that embarrassed UCLA on its home court in December.
But March’s Bruins are not December’s Bruins, a rudderless ship that appeared destined for NIT shame.
Having won six of their last seven, UCLA has established both rhythm and identity, playing a balanced brand of basketball in which the orange is pounded inside by big-men Tony Parker and Kevon Looney to set-up the suddenly lethal perimeter shooting of guard Bryce Alford.
The persistent grit and drive of senior Norman Powell and the occasional spark from guard Isaac Hamilton have also proved invaluable commodities, as the team has gelled just in time to transform from tournament hopeful to a scary out, even for the likes of mighty Gonzaga.
“The selection committee thought we were good enough to play in this tournament, and I think we proved it,” said Parker.
With the initial proving done, UCLA, as odd as it sounds, has the opportunity to piece together its own Cinderella run, an unwritten chapter in a wild, rich, and utterly mad season story.