SPORTS DIGEST: UCLA begins March Madness with high expectations

By Don Wanlass

Contributing Writer

USC starts most football seasons with national title expectations.

UCLA does the same come basketball season. With 11 national titles, the Bruins have the most championships of any university in the country and they hope to add to that total every season. 

It hasn’t happened since 1995. It could happen this year.

The Bruins enter the NCAA Tournament March 16 at 7:05 p.m. with a game against North Carolina Asheville, champions of the Big South Conference. 

UCLA is seeded second in the NCAA Western Regional. That 61-59 loss to Arizona in the Pac 12 Conference championship game may have cost them the No. 1 seed in the west, but the Bruins still get to stay relatively close to home — Sacramento this week, Las Vegas next week — for the first four rounds of the tournament.

Unfortunately, the Bruin are not entering the tournament at full strength. Jaylen Clark, the Pac 12 defensive player of the year, is out for the rest of the season with a lower leg injury. 

Freshman center Adem Bona injured his shoulder against Oregon in the Pac 12 Tournament and sat out the last two games. His absence probably cost the Bruins the Pac 12 championship because his backups, Kenneth Nwuba and Mac Etienne, were in constant foul trouble before they both fouled out against Arizona.

Boma is reportedly ready to go. The Bruins will need him if they are to do any damage in the tournament.

The winner of the Northwestern-Boise State game will be next for UCLA. While you can’t undersell anyone come tournament time, the Bruins should be able to advance to the Sweet 16 next weekend where they will get to face Gonzaga and then Kansas to advance to the Final Four. That will be a tough road, but it is nothing the Bruins can’t overcome if they play as well as they can.

The Bruins have solid senior leadership in Jaime Jaquez Jr., Tyger Campbell and David Singleton. 

Jaquez is the team leader in points, 17.3 a game, and rebounds, 8.1. He is the Pac 12 player of the year and a second team All American selection. He is quite capable of strapping the team to his back and carrying them for awhile, if necessary.

Campbell is second on the team in scoring, 13.6 points a game, and leads in assists with 4.7. He is a streak shooter, who went cold most of the night against Arizona in the Pac 12 title game.

Singleton was coming off the bench until Clark got hurt. He averages 9.1 points a game and hits 43.2% of his three pointers while also playing solid defense.

The Bruins also have a freshman who can score in Amari Bailey and a freshman who can defend in Bona.

Bailey was the Pac 12 freshman of the week three times this season and is the fourth leading scorer on the team with a 10.6 average. He can score points in bunches and is as comfortable shooting from three-point range as he is taking the ball to the rim.

Although the Bruins will miss Clark, they have adequate help off the bench in Dylan Andrews, Will McClendon, Nwuba and Etienne.

They also have coach Mick Cronin, who seems to know which buttons to push and when to push them.

The Bruins made in to the Sweet 16 last year. They hope to make it to the Final Four this year. 

They have the player and the coach to get them there, but it takes more than that sometimes to win an NCAA title. Whether they can find any of that magic remains to be seen.

The USC Trojans did themselves no favors in the Pac 12 Tournament, losing to Arizona State, 77-72, in the second round and falling all the way to the 10th seed in the East Regional in the NCAA Tournament. The Trojans open the tournament at 9:15 a.m. March 17 against Michigan State, in Columbus, Ohio.

If the Trojans get past Michigan State, they will most likely face second-seed Marquette.

The Trojans are 22-10 on the season. Like the Bruins they are relying on senior leadership from guards Boogie Ellis and Drew Peterson. Unfortunately, both had bad games against Arizona State in the Pac 12 Tournament. 

Ellis averages 18 points a game and Peterson averages 14 points. Sophomore Kobe Johnson picked up some of the slack for Ellis and Peterson against Arizona State and is becoming a player coach Andy Enfield can rely on.

Freshman center Vincent Iwuchukwu sat out the game against Arizona State with an injury. If the Trojans hope to advance, he needs to be healthy and avoid foul trouble. Otherwise, it will be a short tournament for the Trojans, just like the Pac 12.

ON THE RISE: Hold on to your seats, here come the Lakers. 

The Lakers are 8-3 since they unloaded Russell Westbrook. They are now tied foe eighth in the Western Conference and are in the midst of a dogfight for playoff seeding. 

They are playing well without LeBron James in the lineup, with Anthony Davis stepping up his game considerably. The Lakers still have 13 games remaining in the season with two against the Houston Rockets and two more against the Chicago Bulls, two teams that are jockeying more for draft lottery position than they are for the playoffs.

General manager Rob Pelinka brought in some solid pieces at the trading deadline, including former Laker D’Angelo Russell, who is providing floor leadership without James and averaging 18.9 points a game since rejoining the team.

Malik Beasly also has found a niche, averaging 12.3 points a game and becomng the three-point shooter the team has been missing.

Since James got injured Feb. 26 against the Dallas Mavericks, the Lakers have gone 5-3. In those games, Davis has averaged almost 28 points and more than 13 rebounds a game. (He sat out a win over the Oklahoma City Thunder March 1)

If James can return anywhere near 100%, the Lakers have a chance to do some damage in the Western Conference, which lacks a standout team this season.

Although the Clippers are two games ahead of the Lakers in the standings, they are still trying to adjust to Westbrook’s presence in the lineup.

The Clippers are 3-5 since signing Westbrook as a free agent. They lost their first five games with him, but have won the last three. 

Westbrook is averaging 13.3 points and 7.5 assists a game since joining the Clippers. He is also averaging 4 turnovers a game, right around his career average.

Without him, the Clippers have a glaring hole at the point guard position. With him, they have someone who can distribute the ball, but someone who sometimes takes shots that leave you shaking your head.

And he doesn’t play a lick of defense.

During the last 13 games of the season, coach Tyronn Lue must figure out how to best use Westbrook and Terence Mann. Mann plays better defense and hits 38.8% of his three pointers, but he is not the point guard Westbrook is.

Westbrook shoots 29.2% from three-point range.

Barring injuries, the rest of the Clippers roster is solid. Ivica Zubac and Mason Plumlee are a solid duo at center, Norman Powell provides scoring off the bench and Eric Gordon, Nicholas Batum and Marcus Morris Sr. are veterans who can will multiple roles off the bench.

It’s up to Lue to figure out what the best rotations are for this roster and he has only 13 games to do it.