Bill Plaschke: More craziness than March? UCLA and USC face tough roads to Big Easy | Sports


A year ago, they both broke the brackets.

Now it looks like the brackets might break them.

A year ago at the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, UCLA fought their way to the Final Four while USC advanced to the Elite Eight.

Now, it looks like the two will have to fight their way out of the first weekend.

A year ago, Mick Cronin of the Bruins and Andy Enfield of the Trojans performed some of the best magic workouts of their careers.

Now it looks like they were cursed with more hats than bunnies.

The unveiling of the March Madness brackets on Sunday, while filled with the usual homegrown hope, grimly put UCLA and USC on a possible march of madness.

Both face big tasks to make it to the Sweet 16. And if either makes it that far, the rest of the trek is so difficult that any success could match last year on the miracle meter.

As the big dances go on, both teams are going to have to do some serious waltzing just to survive, let alone make it to the Final Four in New Orleans.

Start with UCLA, which finished the season with championship efforts and health but was only seeded fourth after crashing out against mighty Arizona in the Pac-12 Tournament Finals on Saturday night.

The Bruins will have a first-round break Thursday in Portland, Ore., against an Akron team rated the 127th-best in the nation. The only question in this game will be, what is a Zip?

But then it gets pretty hard, pretty quick.

Their second round game would likely be against St. Mary’s, a smart team with the 12th defense in the country. The Gaels have wins over Gonzaga and Oregon, which the Bruins couldn’t beat. The Gaels also have the secret March sauce – a trio of veteran guards in Alex Ducas, Logan Johnson and Tommy Kuhse.

It would be a tough game against what is likely to be a large St. Mary’s crowd. If the Bruins survive, they will then travel to Philadelphia for an Eastern Regional that will surely look like a slow climb up the “Rocky” steps.

Their first opponent there would likely be defending champion Baylor, who has flown under the radar for much of the year, but the Bears can still fly. They beat Kansas, Villanova, Michigan State and Iowa State. First-year guard Kendall Brown will be an NBA first-round pick. They are primed again.

If UCLA could knock out the champions, standing between the Bruins and the Final Four would likely be an even bigger hurdle: a Kentucky team that spent much of the winter as the most dangerous in the country. The Wildcats feature probable Wooden Award winner, rebounding machine and inner strength Oscar Tshiebwe. They can hit the Bruins where they hurt the most.

If UCLA is still standing after two weekends of battles and can it rush into the Final Four again? Gonzaga would likely be waiting for them in New Orleans, which beat the Bruins by 20 this season after winning on a 40-foot overtime buzzer-beater in last year’s Final Four.

Man, that would be a rematch of a rematch, right? But the Bruins have to deal with the worst things first.

Then there’s USC who, despite their school-record 26 wins, have lost three of their last four games and defeated just one ranked opponent all season. The Trojans paid off their big-game fights with a seventh seed and a first-round date in Greenville, South Carolina, against badass Miami.

The Hurricanes are one of those schools run by veterans who transferred like USC last year. The Hurricanes feature guard Charlie Moore, who is attending his fourth school in his sixth varsity season. Their experience led to victories at Duke, Virginia Tech and at home against North Carolina. They could easily exhaust a team of Trojans that already seems tired.

But Enfield arguably had its best practice this year after losing star Evan Mobley to the NBA, so the Trojans could claim victory, just in time for a bigger task.

Hello Auburn. Yeah, this team coached by Bruce Pearl had an abbreviated stay in the SEC Tournament but spent all year leading the polls and has one of the best players in the tournament in possible No. 1 draft pick Jabari Smith. The Tigers are incredibly talented and experienced and will be the hardest to take down.

Can USC overcome these hurdles and move to the Midwest region in Chicago? Uh, let’s talk then.

If nothing else, both tournament-tested coaches are ready.

Cronin is thrilled his team’s injury scourge is gone and he’s excited about how the Bruins faced an eventual national champion team from Arizona.

“What did we teach you last year, you know?” Cronin asked reporters on Sunday. “That’s how we start playing now. You just have to win one at a time…you start thinking who you get the chance to play after that, you’re in trouble.”

Enfield embraces the challenges and believes its Trojans are smart and experienced enough to handle them. They were, after all, 10-1 in games decided by five points or less. And four of their five starters played in last year’s tournament

“I’m really, really happy with the progress of our team and the current situation,” he told reporters on Sunday. “It’s a credit to our players. They’ve done a great job this season.”

Oh yeah, don’t forget the third home team to qualify for the tournament, Cal State Fullerton’s surprising Dedrique Taylor Titans. The Big West Tournament champions will have a chance to end a legendary coaching career when they face Duke and retiring Mike Krzyzewski in the first round.

If the Titans win this game in one of the biggest upsets in tournament history, they will advance to the second round to play probably… who cares? Cal State David will have knocked down Coach Goliath!

Let the madness begin.

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