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March 20, 2014

UCLA heads into the Big Dance with confidence

Steve Alford may have only recently arrived in Westwood, but he's hit the ground running in his first year as UCLA head coach and has his sights set on a triumphant run in the forthcoming NCAA Tournament.

After winning its first conference tournament since 2008, UCLA now shifts gears toward winning a tournament it hasn't won since 1995: the almighty NCAA Tournament.

The Bruins have been pegged a No. 4 seed and would likely have to defeat the No. 1 overall seed, Florida, if they were to advance beyond the Sweet 16. But that isn't discouraging Alford from pursuing another banner to hoist in the rafters of Pauley Pavilion.

"I walk by Coach (John) Wooden's statue every day," Alford said. "I don't walk by it as a burden; it's a humbling experience for me. It reminds me of the blessing that I have to have an opportunity to coach here.

"I don't just want the banners hanging from the rafters. … Champions are made here…and all these young men want to be champions."

Fortunately for the Bruins, Alford's determination for greatness in the NCAA Tournament is echoed by the players.

After UCLA defeated rival Arizona in the Pac-12 Tournament final, it's confident it can beat any team in the nation. The Wildcats were ranked No. 1 in the country for eight consecutive weeks and have been allotted a No. 1 seed in the West region.

"(It gives us) a lot of confidence," junior guard Norman Powell said of beating Arizona. "It just shows that we can play with anybody in the country. We can beat anybody."

Although the Bruins are confident and determined heading into the Tournament, they want to remain on an even keel.

Since the field expanded to 64 teams in 1985, the No. 4 seed has won 79 percent (91-115) of the Round of 64 matchups against No. 13 seeds. But at least one 13 has upset a 4 in the past six years. Most recently, No. 4 Kansas State was knocked out of the tournament by No. 13 La Salle.

"Then again, anybody can beat us," Powell said. "If we go out there and don't play hard, don't work together and concentrate, we're running the risk of being beaten. There's a lot of confidence in this team that if we go out there and do what we need to do, it's going to work out for us."

While UCLA is an odds-on favorite to convincingly defeat its opening tournament matchup against Tulsa in San Diego on Friday night, there is a bit of history between the two programs that serves the Bruins a dose of humility.

In 1994, the season prior to UCLA's most recent national title, the No. 5 Bruins were knocked out of the Round of 64 by none other than the No. 12 Tulsa Golden Hurricane.

"They're loaded with sophomores that are very athletic and hungry," Alford said of Tulsa, which is coached by former Kansas Jayhawks star Danny Manning. "They've won 11 straight, so any time you do that, with the parity that's in men's basketball, you're a very good basketball team. We know that, and we're going to get a very good test."

To prepare the Bruins for that test, Alford is taking the same laissez-faire approach that he did in preparation for the Pac-12 Tournament.

Instead of taking the risk of wearing down his team, the 22-year head coach gave his players Sunday and Monday off to rest and focus on studying for their final exams.
The Bruins practiced Tuesday and Wednesday and will have a light workout on Thursday, but Alford has no intention of cramming for the Tournament.

"So much time, there's so much heat, pressure, and intensity put on that you forget that the reward part about how fun it is," Alford said. "We (kept it loose) going into the Pac-12 Tournament - we wanted to make sure these guys enjoyed themselves and had fun - and we played at a higher level. So, it's the same kind of process as we go into this tournament."

While they won't be grinding in the gym for their Round of 64 matchup against Tulsa, UCLA's coaching staff and players will be busy studying film, particularly of the Golden Hurricane's leading scorer James Woodard (15.7 points per game).

Woodard was integral to Tulsa's 11-game winning streak, averaging 17.3 points per game during the stretch and finishing with a dynamite 27-point performance, a season high, in the Conference USA title game.

Powell, who will likely be tasked with guarding the 6-foot-3 sophomore guard, compared his style of play to that of Stanford guard Chasson Randle.

"(Woodard) attacks," said Powell, who will play in his hometown of San Diego for the first time as a member of the Bruins. "He has a scoring mentality. He's shifty with the ball. He gets the rim and he's able to finish."

UCLA remains intact and surging as it heads into the NCAA Tournament, but it will be without reserve forward Wanaah Bail, who had knee surgery on Tuesday after re-injuring his left knee on Monday.

The 6-foot-9 freshman only played a total of 60 minutes this season, but was the Bruins' safety net for their three frontcourt players if they got in foul trouble, or worse, suffered an injury.

Alford said doctors told him that Bail might be available if they advance in the tournament, but wasn't concerned about Bail's absence. The Bruins also have freshman guard / forward Noah Allen, who can play the three or the four spot, if necessary.

"We've played most of the year with an eight-man rotation," Alford said. "Wanaah hasn't been in that rotation, but he was that insurance policy that we had if we got in foul trouble."

The madness will get underway for the Bruins at their official tip-off time of 6:57 p.m. PT on Friday.


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