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Blue-Blood Cinderella

There were two double-digit seeds in last year’s Sweet 16 - Oregon (12) and Florida Gulf Coast (15). And while Lob City got most of the press, the Ducks busted just as many brackets, knocking off a 5 (Oklahoma State) and a 4 (Saint Louis). The underachieving high-major team doesn’t make for as good of a Cinderella story as the low-major underdogs, but they are every bit as common in March. That goes double in a year like 2014, where there isn’t an overwhelming favorite.

If you are looking for a high-major team with a middling seed to ride in your bracket, you could do worse than UCLA, which routed Oregon 82-62 in the first round of the Pac-12 Tournament. Despite a 24-8 record and a 12-6 mark in conference play, UCLA has slipped under the national radar for most of the season. The Bruins have been on the fringes of the Top 25 for most of their first season under Steve Alford, but they have as much talent as anyone in the country.

Shabazz Muhammad was the most celebrated player in UCLA’s recruiting class last season, but Kyle “Slow Mo” Anderson and Jordan Adams are every bit as talented. This season, playing in Alford’s uptempo system instead of Ben Howland’s restrictive half-court offense, Anderson and Adams have more than made up for the loss of Muhammad to the NBA. The two are first-team All Pac 12 as sophomores and both have a chance to be a first-round pick in this year’s draft.

Anderson, a 6’9 230 point forward, is one of the most unique players in the country. He is a nightly triple-double threat, averaging 15 points, 9 rebounds and 7 assists on 49 percent shooting. An improved jumper has made Anderson, a limited scorer as a freshman, an almost impossible cover. He can take bigger players on the perimeter and post up smaller players on the block. In a one-and-done scenario, there’s no way to prepare for a 6’9 player with his skill-set.

Adams doesn’t have the athleticism of most high-level SG’s, but he’s a gifted scorer with a great feel for the game. At 6’5 230, he can score over the top of smaller defenders, run off screens and shoot from anywhere on the floor and take the ball to the rim and draw fouls. Adams is the definition of a player who “gets buckets”, a professional scorer who can shoot a higher-ranked team out of the Tournament. He has games of 30, 31 and 28 points this season.

UCLA fills out the rest of the starting line-up with role-playing upperclassmen - David Wear, Travis Wear and Norman Powell - who know how to play off Anderson and Adams. At 6’10 230, the Wear Twins are skilled big men who can run the pick-and-pop and knock down 20-footers, opening up driving lanes to the rim. At 6’4 215, Powell can shoot 3’s and play well above the rim. On defense, he cross-switches with Anderson, using his size and athleticism to hound smaller PG’s.

And while the Bruins starting five looks like an NBA team physically, their bench is what makes them really intriguing. Brice Alford (the coach’s son), Zach LaVine and Tony Parker have the talent to play much bigger roles. As a result, UCLA is the rare NCAA team that is more dangerous when they go to their bench. When Anderson and Adams were suspended for a game against Oregon in February, Alford went for 31/6 and LaVine chipped in 18/8/5.

The Bruins downsize when the two freshman guards enter the game, with Adams moving to the 3 and Anderson playing as as a 4. The foursome of Alford-LaVine-Adams-Anderson is almost an embarrassment of riches on the offensive end of the floor - four perimeter players who can shoot from deep, put the ball on the floor and make plays for each other. When UCLA is pushing the pace and clicking on offense, they are as exciting as any team in the country.

Parker isn’t as flashy as his more celebrated teammates, but he’s the X-factor for the Bruins to make a deep run in March. At 6’9 255, he’s the biggest player in the UCLA rotation and their one player capable of banging down low, scoring with his back to the basket and protecting the paint. The fourth wheel in the 2013 recruiting class, Parker, like many big men, has developed slowly in college. His size off the bench could pose big problems for an undersized team.

UCLA is one of the true blue-blood programs in college basketball. What made the school so attractive to a coach like Alford, who left a good situation in New Mexico, is its ability to attract elite talent. The Bruins are only a few years removed from three consecutive trips to the Final Four, with teams that featured a half-dozen NBA players. Every player in this year’s rotation was a four or five-star recruit - they have McDonald’s All-Americans coming off their bench.

In terms of their national ranking, they have been a victim of their schedule as much as anything else. In his first season at Westwood, Alford did not push his team in non-conference and they missed their only chances to grab signature wins - losing at Missouri and to Duke at Madison Square Garden aka Cameron North. They only played Arizona once and no one else in the Pac-12 has much of a national reputation, so UCLA hasn’t had a lot of chances to make a statement.

None of this is to say the Bruins are a perfect team. They are ranked outside of the Top 25 for a reason - like most teams who rely on underclassmen, they can be sloppy with the ball, they are prone to defensive lapses and they perform much worse on the road than at home. The good news for UCLA is they won’t be playing road games in the NCAA Tournament; the games will be on neutral floors, allowing them to take advantage of their edge in talent and horsepower.

When the bracket comes out, you can throw away the Bruins' seed. As an offensive-minded team that wants to play in the open court, they could run a higher ranked team off the court or be upset by a lower-ranked team that controls the pace and keeps them in the half-court. Either way, there isn’t a team in the country that UCLA doesn’t have the personnel to go 40 minutes with - any team with multiple NBA players on the perimeter should not be taken lightly in March.

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