The UCLA men’s basketball team owns the nation’s most potent offense this season and a candidate for Player of the Year. If the Bruins are going to make a deep run in this year’s NCAA Tournament, it will start in Sacramento.
UCLA and Pacific-12 Conference rival Oregon are among eight teams heading to Sacramento this week for March Madness. Golden 1 Center will host four first-round games Friday, with the winners advancing to second-round games Sunday.
Oregon, the No. 3 seed in the Midwest Region, will play No. 14 Iona. UCLA, after stumbling in the Pac-12 tournament, landed the No. 3 seed in the South Region and will face No. 14 Kent State in the first round.
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Sacramento also hosts two matchups between No. 6 and 11 seeds: Creighton against Rhode Island, and Cincinnati facing the winner of the “First Four” play-in game between Kansas State and Wake Forest, scheduled for Tuesday in Dayton, Ohio.
The biggest draw may be the Bruins, who finished the regular season ranked third in the country before falling to eventual champion Arizona in the semifinals of the Pac-12 tournament. UCLA averaged 90.4 points per game and is led by freshman Lonzo Ball, the 6-foot-6 point guard widely expected to be one of the first players taken in this year’s NBA draft.
“(The) feeling is great, and (I’m) full of joy, so I can’t wait to get out there and play,” Ball said. “Obviously we have to redeem ourselves since we didn’t win the Pac-12, so it’s a great chance to go out there and prove ourselves.”
During Sunday’s tournament selection show, CBS analyst Clark Kellogg described Ball as a “transcendent point guard” and expects UCLA to advance to the Final Four – which would mean advancing out of a quadrant of the bracket that includes powerhouses North Carolina and Kentucky.
“There’s not a team that scores the ball easier than the Bruins, and Lonzo Ball’s been the catalyst of it all,” Kellogg said. “This is a good spot for the Bruins. I see them coming out of the South (Region).”
UCLA’s first-round opponent, Kent State, won the Mid-American Conference tournament to secure its first tournament berth since 2008. If the Bruins advance, they will face either Cincinnati or the winner of Tuesday’s play-in game between Kansas State and Wake Forest.
The Bearcats earned a No. 6 seed with the fourth-stingiest defense in the nation, holding opponents to 60.5 points per game this season, and are making their seventh consecutive tournament appearance. Kansas State and Wake Forest playing in the “First Four” game indicates they were among the last teams selected to the field.
Oregon reached the final of the Pac-12 tournament last week, but it came with a price. Senior forward Chris Boucher suffered a knee injury during the Ducks’ semifinal win over Cal and will miss the rest of the season – something CBS analyst Seth Davis said may have cost the Ducks a chance at a No. 2 seed.
Oregon’s No. 3 seeding sat well with Dillon Brooks, the Pac-12’s MVP.
“Wherever we’re at, we’re competitors, and we’re confident in ourselves,” Dillon told reporters Sunday. “I got confirmation from all these guys that we’re ready to go and we’re ready to make something happen.”
After finishing the regular season ranked fifth in the country, Oregon fell in the Pac-12 final to Arizona, 83-80, on Saturday.
“We’ve got to bounce back from here – and we’ve got the group to do it,” Ducks coach Dana Altman told the school’s website. “They’re very competitive.”
Their first-round opponent, Iona, won the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament by beating Siena in overtime.
“They can put it in the basket,” Kellogg said of the Gaels. “They shoot threes; they play a freewheeling style. We’ve seen this team in the tournament four of the last five years, and they’re always entertaining.”
In a subplot courtesy of the selection committee, the Ducks could play their second-round game against Creighton, where Altman was the coach from 1994 to 2010.
Creighton landed the No. 6 seed in the Midwest Region after reaching the final of the Big East Conference tournament, losing to No. 1 overall seed Villanova.
First-round opponent Rhode Island won the Atlantic-10 Conference to secure an NCAA Tournament berth for the first time since 1999.
It has been 10 years since Sacramento last hosted NCAA Tournament games at then-Arco Arena. The city bid twice unsuccessfully to host again before landing games this year on the strength of opening the downtown Golden 1 Center.
Golden 1 games
No. 3 Oregon (29-5) vs. No. 14 Iona (22-12), 11 a.m., TBS
No. 6 Creighton (25-9) vs. No. 11 Rhode Island (24-9), 1:30 p.m., TBS
No. 6 Cincinnati (29-5) vs. No. 11 *Wake Forest-Kansas State winner, 4:27 p.m., truTV
No. 3 UCLA (29-4) vs. No. 14 Kent State (22-13), 6:57 p.m., truTV
*Play-in game in Dayton, Ohio