DAYTON, Ohio — UCLA’s storied NCAA Tournament history includes 18 Final Four appearances. A First Four? None, until now.
The Bruins open the tournament in Dayton on Tuesday at the bottom of the bracket looking up, an unexpected development for a team that started the season with an international controversy and ended it with another spot in the tournament — albeit one of the least desirable.
UCLA (21-11) faces St. Bonaventure (25-7) in the second game Tuesday night at University of Dayton Arena. LIU Brooklyn (18-16) opens against Radford (22-12) in a matchup of No. 16 seeds that have never won an NCAA Tournament game.
The Bruins didn’t expect to be making their first appearance in a First Four game. They were surprised to see their draw in the selection show on Sunday night, which left them with only a few hours to arrange a cross-country flight.
“We really weren’t expecting that as we’re watching the show,” coach Steve Alford said. “We were thinking we’ve got at least three days at home to practice and look at film and get ready. All of a sudden the selection show is over and we’re like, ‘We’re probably leaving in the morning.’”
But at least they’d made it after a challenging November and early December.
The Bruins had an early and international role in college basketball’s season of scandal. Freshmen Jalen Hill and Cody Riley were suspended for the season for shoplifting during a trip to China in November. LiAngelo Ball also was suspended and withdrew from school.
UCLA had a game with Montana called off because of wildfires in early December, adding to the Bruins’ unusual start.
“Four months ago we’re sitting in China and not knowing what’s going on and what’s happening,” Alford said. “And now we’re in the NCAA Tournament, and that’s a very good accomplishment.”
The Bruins weren’t alone in dealing with off-court issues.
Louisville vacated its 2013 national title in response to a sex scandal that led to Rick Pitino’s ouster. The FBI also is investigating allegations that led to charges last fall against assistant coaches and agents. Arizona’s Sean Miller missed one game and three practices after ESPN reported he discussed a $100,000 payment to star Deandre Ayton, which the coach has denied.
UCLA gained its footing after its early challenges and got in position for the NCAA Tournament — though just barely — by closing with eight wins in 12 games. The Bruins had hoped for a better seed, but will have to earn the chance to face Florida (20-12) on Thursday in Dallas as part of the East region.