By Don Wanlass
A week ago, it looked like UCLA had a few hurdles to leap over if the men’s basketball was going to advance past the Sweet 16 round of the NCAA tournament.
Seeded fourth in the Eastern Regional, UCLA was going to have to get past No. 2 seeded Kentucky and No. 1 seeded Baylor if they were to follow last season’s path to the Final 4.
Then the NCAA tournament happened and Kentucky was upset by tiny St. Peter’s in the opening round and North Carolina, an eighth seed, knocked off Baylor in the second round and now UCLA only needs to get past North Carolina and No. 3 seed Purdue (probably) to advance to New Orleans, where the Final 4 will be played this year.
Not that North Carolina and Purdue are cupcakes. North Carolina is 26-9 on the season, but one of those 26 wins was against Duke in coach Mike Krzyzewski’s last home game and the Tar Heels led Baylor by 27 points in the second half before blowing the lead before holding on to the win in overtime.
Like UCLA, North Carolina is one of the largest brands in college basketball and the Tar Heels will be primed for the Bruins when they meet at 6:30 p.m. March 25 in Philadelphia.
The Bruins may have to play without their best all-around player, Jaime Jaquez Jr., who sprained an ankle late in the Bruins’ 72-56 win over St. Mary’s March 19.
Jaquez scored 15 points before getting hurt and the Bruins will have to find that firepower from someone else if he is unable to play.
Jaquez has been playing on bad ankles all season, so he may be able to recover in time to play, but coach Mick Cronin said he would probably be a game-time decision.
Jaylen Clark would probably replace Jaquez in the starting lineup. Clark might be the best defensive player on the Bruins, but he can’t take over a game offensively like Jaquez.
That role might fall to Johnny Juzang, who took the Bruins on his back last year and carried them to the Final 4. Juzang has been hampered by his own ankle injury lately but he scored 14 against St. Mary’s.
The Tar Heels are longer than the Bruins, but the Bruins are deeper. If the Bruins get past the Tar Heels, a tough Purdue awaits them, unless St. Peter’s continues its Cinderella-like tournament performance.
The Bruins know all about Cinderellas. They struggled for most of the game against 13-seeded Akron March 17 before finally catching and then passing the Zips in the final minutes to win, 57-53, in the first round of the tournament.
UCLA’s five started made only 17 of 48 shots in the game. Tyger Campbell made six of 12 shots to lead the way with 16 points and Jaquez added 15 as the Bruins overcame an eight-point deficit with under eight minutes to play to dodge a bullet.
Cronin won’t let that happen again, but the Bruins must play a solid 40 minutes each game if they are to get past North Carolina and Purdue and make it the Final 4 again.
SPRING FOOTBALL: The USC Trojans were knocked out of the first round of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament by Miami, 68-66 March 18, but that was all forgotten on campus by March 22 because spring football started for new coach Lincoln Riley, quarterback Caleb Williams and the rest of the 2022 Trojans football team.
Basketball coach Andy Enfield must hate the fact that his team is such an afterthought on campus.
It didn’t help that the Trojans played horribly in the first half, being outscored 31-20 by the Hurricanes and outplayed as well. The Trojans rallied behind Drew Peterson and Reese Waters in the second half but couldn’t withstand a late surge by the Hurricanes.
As for football, the Trojans are still getting to know their new coach and he is getting to know his players. Nineteen players from last year’s roster left the program via the new transfer portal that allows college players to come and go as they please it seems.
Riley has already hinted that he intends to use the transfer portal himself and the two-deep lineup that ends spring practice next month might look considerably different in August when training camp begins.
Whoever is on the roster, Riley said March 22 he expects the Trojans to contend for the Pac 12 championship despite last season’s 4-8 record under coach Clay Helton.
“We expect to compete for and win championships every single year that we’re here,” Riley said. “That’s who we are as a staff, that’s what we believe in and, frankly, that’s what this program should be about.”
Those expectations fit right in with most USC fans. Whether Riley can do it his first season remains to be seen.
FINAL STAGE: The Lakers and Clippers are headed into the final stretch of the NBA schedule hoping to escape their destiny: the play-in tournament.
Under the NBA’s new format, the teams ranked seventh through 10th in conference standings have to play their way into the playoffs. On April 12, two days after the regular season ends, the team finishing seventh in the Western Conference plays the teams finishing eighth.
The winner becomes the seventh seed. The loser plays the winner of the play-in game between the ninth and 10th place teams April 15. The winner of that game becomes the eighth seed.
The teams finishing seventh and eighth need just one win to make the playoffs. The ninth- and 10th-place teams need to win two games to advance.
With eight games left to play, the Clippers are eighth in the Western Conference and would face the Minnesota Timberwolves in the first play-in game.
The Lakers, with 10 games remaining on their schedule, would play the New Orleans Pelicans.
It is possible the Lakers and Clippers could meet April 15 with the winner advancing to the playoffs and the loser going home.
The Clippers, who have lost their last four games, don’t have enough games left to leap past the Timberwolves and catch the Denver Nuggets, who are currently in sixth place in the Western Conference. The Lakers trail the Clippers by four games and have little, if any, chance of running them down for eighth place in the conference.
Their season comes down to them staying ahead of the Pelicans so they get a home game at Crypto.com Arena for the play-in game and trying to win LeBron James his first NBA scoring title ever.
James is currently averaging 30 points a game, ahead of Joel Embiid of the Philadelphia 76ers and Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks, who are both averaging 29.8 points a game.
James is averaging 36.7 points a game in his last nine games, which includes seven games with at least 30 points and two with 50 or more.
Seven of the last 10 games left on the schedule are against teams that will be in the playoffs and the Lakers also play the Pelicans twice in that stretch.
Only the next-to-last game of the season April 8 against the Oklahoma City Thunder will be against a team that doesn’t have playoff aspirations.
It’s a tough haul at the end of what has been a long season for the Lakers. But at least, they are still playing for something.