LOS ANGELES -- Ben Howland watched the NCAA tournament selection show Sunday afternoon and came away with as many questions as answers.
He learned that his UCLA Bruins made the tournament as the No. 6 seed in the South Regional and that they would play the Minnesota Golden Gophers Friday in a second-round game in Austin, Texas, but wondered aloud about why his team was sent packing while PAC-12 rivals California, Oregon and Arizona are staying relatively close to home despite UCLA’s résumé being better than all of theirs.
California is seeded No. 12 in the East and will play in San Jose. Oregon is seeded No. 12 in the Midwest and will also play in San Jose. Arizona is seeded No. 6 in the West and will play in Salt Lake City.
“I’d rather be closer,” Howland said. “I would rather be. Honestly, I’d rather be Cal right now playing in San Jose. I’d rather be a 12-seed playing in San Jose. Especially for the fans. For Cal, that’s a great situation. They’re playing at home. I’m happy for them.”
Howland felt as though his team deserved better after winning the Pac-12 regular-season title, advancing to the conference tournament championship game and defeating Arizona three times this season, but, he said, even though the other conference teams got more favorable geography, he still thought the conference got slighted. UCLA and Arizona received the highest seedings of any conference team.
“Our league’s seedings were really disappointing for me,” he said. “I think our conference has a chance to do something good in the tournament. Collectively, now we pull for everybody in the Pac-12 because obviously we need to gain some respect based on how they seeded our teams.”
UCLA’s stature in the bracket took a significant hit when second-leading scorer Jordan Adams broke his foot Friday night in the conference tournament semifinal. Not only did that hamper UCLA’s ability to win the tournament, but the selection committee almost certainly knocked the Bruins down a spot or two in the seeding knowing that Adams would not be playing in the tournament.
“It may have slid us a line,” Howland said. “I thought we were a 5-seed going in to this. If we had won [the Pac-12 tournament], we may have been a four.”
Just getting to the tournament is somewhat of a relief for Howland, whose job has been under scrutiny all season. The Bruins missed the tournament last season -- the second time in three seasons they failed to make the NCAAs. This was a season of high expectations, and while the Bruins would be the first to admit things didn’t play out exactly as planned, winning the conference and making the NCAA tournament were definitely on the goal list at the beginning of the season.
And for the majority of UCLA’s players, this will be the first taste of the Big Dance. Only senior guard Larry Drew II, a transfer from North Carolina who played a reserve role on the Tar Heels’ 2009 national championship team, has played in the NCAA tournament before.
“I’m really excited and really nervous,” freshman Shabazz Muhammad said. “I haven’t played in a tournament game before, so I’m really looking forward to it.”
Still, even Muhammad couldn't help but feel disappointed about the Bruins getting shipped off to Austin.
“It’s disappointing,” he said. “We really worked hard this year, and to really punish us to not be in the West is pretty sad.”
Sophomore Norman Powell echoed that sentiment, but added a little perspective. Every basketball player grows up dreaming of playing in the NCAA tournament, he said, and now, no matter where they are playing, all but one of UCLA's players will realize that dream for the first time.
“We really wanted to be seeded in the West because it would be closer for our fans and our families to get out and see us play,” Powell said. “But we’re just happy that we got in the tournament, and we’re ready to go out and play.”