Kent St.-UCLA Preview (Mar 17, 2017)

Some college basketball analysts are predicting UCLA will reach the Final Four, but the Bruins are focused on their first-round game against Kent State in a South Regional opener Friday at the Golden 1 Center in Sacramento, Calif.

Third-seeded UCLA (29-4) leads the nation in shooting, scoring and assists. The Bruins have topped the century mark in scoring nine times this season.

The Bruins will be heavily favored against 14th-seeded Kent State (22-13), which won the Mid-American Conference tournament to claim its first NCAA Tournament bid since 2008. A potential matchup with sixth-seeded Cincinnati looms in the second-round.

UCLA’s road to the national championship game is lined with college basketball’s bluebloods. The Bruins could face Kentucky in the Sweet 16, North Carolina in the Elite Eight and Kansas in the Final Four, but coach Steve Alford isn’t looking ahead.

“The NCAA Tournament is about your four-team (regional) bracket,” Alford said. “That’s what you’ve got to concentrate on or you’ll never get to any other part of it. Now we know what our bracket looks like and those are the teams we’ve really got to focus on, in particular Kent State.”

The Golden Flashes have won nine of 10 since falling to 13-12 in a 20-point loss to Toledo on Feb. 11. They entered the MAC tournament as a No. 6 seed and defeated the top three seeds to secure an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.

“To me, it’s just an amazing story, right?” Kent State coach Rob Senderoff said. “… The toughness we’ve shown and the togetherness we’ve shown, just an incredible story.”

Sophomore guard Jaylin Walker was named MAC tournament MVP after scoring a career-high 30 points in a 70-65 victory over Akron in the championship game. Senior forward Jimmy Hall leads the team in scoring and rebounding, averaging 18.9 points and 10.5 rebounds.

UCLA will counter Kent State with a potent mix of veteran experience and youthful exuberance. Alford’s rotation features freshman point guard Lonzo Ball, freshman forward TJ Leaf, sophomore guard Aaron Holiday, junior center Thomas Welsh, and senior guards Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton. All six are scoring in double figures.

Alford, Hamilton and Welsh have been to at least one Sweet 16. Leaf and Ball are projected NBA lottery picks. Both are expected to play after suffering minor injuries last week.

Leaf averages 16.2 points and 8.3 rebounds per game. Alford is averaging 15.8 points. The real rock star is Ball, who could be the No. 1 pick in the upcoming NBA Draft. Ball is averaging 14.6 points, 7.7 assists and 6.1 rebounds per game.

Ball’s father has created a stir with some of his remarks in recent weeks, saying his son is a better player than Steph Curry and comparing his branding power to that of Michael Jordan. Ball’s coach just wants him to be himself.

“Eyes have been on him for a long time,” Steve Alford said. “There are people waiting for us at every juncture that we go to and he handles it like a champ every time. It’s not what he’s about and he doesn’t worry about those things, what is said or how he’s being built up. He plays the game for one reason and that’s to win, so we just need Lonzo to be Lonzo.”