DAYTON — UCLA’s storied NCAA Tournament history includes 18 Final Four appearances. A First Four? None, until now.
The Bruins open the tournament in Dayton on Tuesday at the bottom of the bracket looking up, an unexpected development for a team that started the season with an international controversy and ended it with another spot in the tournament — albeit one of the least desirable.
UCLA (21-11) faces St. Bonaventure (25-7) in the second game tonight at the University of Dayton Arena. LIU Brooklyn (18-16) opens against Radford (22-12) in a matchup of No. 16 seeds that have never won an NCAA Tournament game.
The Bruins didn’t expect to be making their first appearance in a First Four game. They were surprised to see their draw in the selection show on Sunday night, which left them with only a few hours to arrange a cross-country flight.
“We really weren’t expecting that as we’re watching the show,” coach Steve Alford said. “We were thinking we’ve got at least three days at home to practice and look at film and get ready. All of a sudden the selection show is over and we’re like, ‘We’re probably leaving in the morning.’”
But at least they’d made it after a challenging November and early December.
The Bruins had an early and international role in college basketball’s season of scandal. Freshmen Jalen Hill and Cody Riley were suspended for the season for shoplifting during a trip to China in November. LiAngelo Ball also was suspended and withdrew from school.
UCLA had a game with Montana called off because of wildfires in early December, adding to the Bruins’ unusual start.
“Four months ago we’re sitting in China and not knowing what’s going on and what’s happening,” Alford said. “And now we’re in the NCAA Tournament, and that’s a very good accomplishment.”
The Bruins weren’t alone in dealing with off-court issues.
Louisville vacated its 2013 national title in response to a sex scandal that led to Rick Pitino’s ouster. The FBI also is investigating allegations that led to charges last fall against assistant coaches and agents. Arizona’s Sean Miller missed one game and three practices after ESPN reported he discussed a $100,000 payment to star Deandre Ayton, which the coach has denied.
UCLA gained its footing after its early challenges and got in position for the NCAA Tournament — though just barely — by closing with eight wins in 12 games. The Bruins had hoped for a better seed, but will have to earn the chance to face Florida (20-12) on Thursday in Dallas as part of the East region.
Some things to watch on the tournament’s opening night:
BONNIES IN RARE AIR: St. Bonaventure is in the tournament for the first time since 2012 and has matched the school record with 25 wins — the 1969-70 Final Four team also won as many. One of the Bonnies’ biggest concerns is Courtney Stockard, who suffered a hamstring injury during the Atlantic 10 Tournament. He averages 12.9 points, third on a team that has little depth. Coach Mark Schmidt said Monday that it’ll be a game-time decision.
BREAKING THROUGH: The tournament’s first game matches two teams that have yet to win in the NCAA Tournament: LIU Brooklyn is 0-6, Radford 0-2. St. Bonaventure also has a long tournament drought, failing to win since 1970. The Bonnies lost their opening game in their last three NCAA Tournament appearances in 1978, 2000 and 2012.
FAMILIAR ARENA: St. Bonaventure played at UD Arena on Jan. 3 and lost 82-72. The Bonnies are familiar with the arena and hoping for support from Flyers fans.
“This would be the first time that we won’t get booed,” Schmidt said. “I think one of the advantages, if we have an advantage, is that we played here a number of times.”
FAMILIAR ARENA PART 2: LIU Brooklyn coach Derek Kellogg was fired by Massachusetts last season after losing to St. Bonaventure in the A-10 tournament. He got the Blackbirds to the NCAA Tournament in his first season and will be playing in an arena that was a regular A-10 stop during his nine seasons with UMass.
“I’ve had some, I’d say, OK memories here,” Kellogg said. “And this is such a tough place to come in and play.”
LIKE FATHER: Radford coach Mike Jones has two rooting interests in the tournament. His oldest son, Nate, is a junior guard at Bucknell, which won the Patriot League’s bid. Bucknell plays Michigan State in Detroit on Friday. Nate Jones averages 11 minutes and 2.2 points per game.
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