UCLA defy the experts to reach Sweet 16 of March Madness

Is UCLA headed for the Final Four? (©GettyImages)

UCLA is nobody's idea of an underdog. The once-John Wooden led squad rang up seven straight championships and 10 total from the 1960s to 1970s. 

It's safe to say that the Bruins are rarely counted out for some postseason magic.

Yet that's exactly what happened this year, when national pundits (yours truly included), balked at the idea of them being included in the bracket. The NCAA selection team said, at the time, that it made the decision based on UCLA's forward momentum at the end of the season.

And perhaps they were right. As I write this, the Bruins have now won six of their last seven games and have a 22-13 record. They just wrapped up a 92-75 beat down of tournament darlings UAB. And after edging out SMU 60-59 on a bogus goal-tending call, it may seem that fate itself has decided to aid them.

Of course, if that's the case, couldn't fate have chosen a more deserving team to help out? After all, it's not like UCLA doesn't have championships to spare.

Tony Parker is the Wild Card

During the regular season, junior forward Tony Parker - a McDonald's high school All-American in 2012 - put up pedestrian numbers. It's not that they were terrible, but for a player who has captured two gold medals with USA's youth basketball teams, they were a bit disappointing.

Averaging 10.9 points and 6.4 rebounds won't put you on any national award lists, especially as a third-year player.

He continued that stretch of rough play with a brutal showing against the Mustangs, turning in a 1-for-6 shooting night for three points and two rebounds. 

But his luck changed against the over-matched UAB Dragons. He scored 28 points on 11-of-14 shooting, added 12 rebounds (four on the offensive glass) and threw in three blocks just for show. It was a virtuoso performance, even if it did come against a weaker opponent.

So what does this mean for UCLA's ongoing playoff chances? When Parker's hot, they can be indomitable  When he's not? Get ready for a long night.

Upcoming Challenge

UCLA faces the winner of No. 7 Iowa and No. 2 Gonzaga. 

The South is probably the weakest bracket. It's one-seeded Duke is one of the tournament's most talented teams, but sometimes plays down to its competition and could be down for an upset. Gonzaga is a quality team, but is not unbeatable. 

And after that, the competition quickly drops. Does that mean the Bruins could be setting themselves up for a Final Four run? 

Critics would say, emphatically, no way. After all, UCLA had five straight losses at one point. The Bruins have only one win against a top-25 opponent this season.

Then again, we skeptics have been proven wrong about UCLA once already in this tournament. 

So maybe the Bruins have some more surprises up their sleeve.

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