Underdog Battle Intrigue: UAB Blazers vs. UCLA Bruins

Kentucky is "only" a 17 point fovorite in a spread that could nearly be doubled.
Kentucky is “only” a 17 point fovorite in a spread that could nearly be doubled.

Time: 12:10 PM ET, CBS
Spread: UCLA -6
Total: 133

Betting odds c/o Bovada

UAB and UCLA both pulled pretty nice upsets in the first round, especially the UAB Blazers who were one of the two 14 seeds to knock off a No. 3 in second round action despite being overwhelming 14-point underdogs in the matchup. UCLA, too, holds a six-point favorite according to college basketball oddsmakers, but it seems silly to discount the Blazers strong performance against Fred Hoiberg’s well coached Iowa State squad.

Comparatively, the Blazers could be en easy defeat. UCLA snuck by SMU on a purely garbage call, getting a goal tending on a shot that was well short and had zero chance of dropping through the net. What a fantastic way to end a season on the call of a reviewable play the referees were far too egotistical to admit error on. SMU coach Larry Brown was livid, and rightfully so, the call was not just controversial but changed the outcome of the game, in a most horrible way.

UCLA is 21-13 thus far on the season and posted an 11-7 record in Pac-12 play in the conference schedule. A somewhat predictable defeat to Arizona ended its regular season, despite hanging with the Wildcats and even having tied the game at the half.

Norman Powell had a huge game going 8 of 17 from the floor en route to 21 points. Youngster Kevon Looney struggled and was nearly invisible, which is not what he needs to improve his potential NBA Draft stock. Should Looney flounder in this tournament, it’s still possible he choose not to declare for the NBA draft in June. Looney has averaged 11.8 points and 9.2 rebounds per game this season, however, and a strong double-double player in a major conference usually has a place in the first round.

Powell and Bryce Alford are the workhorses offensively, though, accounting for 31.5 points per game and Alford also dishes out five assists per. The Bruins are a dangerous three-point shooting team, connecting on 36.3 percent. Alford has attempted 216 threes this season and connected on 79 of them, while Isaac Hamilton is also a good marksman off the bench, having hit 57 threes this year in averaging 10 points per game.

In its opening win over SMU, it was guard Bryce Alford that made the difference. The son of legend Steve Alford connected on 9 of 13 from the field including an astounding 9 of 11 from three (notwithstanding the egregious goal tending call), and the Bruins also got 19 points, six rebounds and four assists from Normal Powell. UCLA led by four at the half, but was outscored 29-26 in the second half including a huge SMU run that rallied the team from down double-digits. That effort in getting back in the game may have cost Brown’s squad, but it was a close game and the Bruins still managed to win despite 18 turnovers (!) and just 42 percent shooting from the field. Even so, UCLA hit 10 of 20 from distance and held a plus-4 advantage on the glass in the contest.

Powell and Alford were just two of five UCLA players to average double-figures this year, and Powell put up 16.5 points, 4.7 rebounds and 2.1 assists in 34 minutes a game for the Bruins this year. Over his last two games, he’s shot 13 of 28 from the floor and 13 of 13 from three-point range to average 20 per over that duo of games. He struggled more against USC in back-to-back meetings with the Trojans all but preventing him from getting to the line or getting off quality threes. He only knocked down 14 of 30 over that stretch, which was preceded by an even more horrendous game in the second matchup when he shot just 31 percent from the floor while also turning it over three times. Powell can either keep this team in games and win them, or self destruct the Bruins with tough, contested shots. His three-point shot is hardly deadly either, shooting just 31 percent from behind the arc. He’s seen an uptick in minutes all four years at UCLA, but only his junior campaign was particularly efficient—now he’s more high volume

Alford jacked up 227 triples this year and knocked 88 of them, Four of the rotation players shoot 31 percent from the floor or better but only Alford and Kevon Looney are really all that reliable. Looney is receiving attention as a likely lottery pick, but the 6’9” freshman forward has done little of late, which doesn’t bod well for the Bruins at all. He has put up just 16 points in the last three games while attempting just 14 shots. His lack of involvement and production could cripple the Bruins. There are nights like against USC on Mar 4 when all goes right, 5 of 7 shooting, 13 rebounds, 13 points, all in a 26-point win over the Trojans.

To call UAB a huge surprise upset is kind of an understatement to say the least. The team moves the ball well but doesn’t put up mass points (68.9) and it also shoots a wicked nasty 43 percent from the floor. The Blazers closed the season with four straight conference wins to earn its berth, but it’s hard to read too much into beating Western Kentucky, La. Tech, Middle Tennessee and Iowa State (OK, Iowa State was huge actually). Robert Brown is the only double-digit scorer on UAB with 13 points per game but he shoots under 40 percent from the floor which isn’t exactly what a team wants from a player billed as a “shooting” guard. That said, over the last two games he absolutely has been, averaging 21.5 points per game on 13 of 30 shooting with seven threes over the pair of games. Both were wins, and the one of Iowa State busted about every bracket on the Yahoo! interface.

UAB benefitted from his transfer, but to what avail? The team still is bereft of scoring ability and if Brown is struggling UCLA easily wins this by double digits. That said, bettors are wise to bet the six-point spread on UCLA because it seems this is game that could easily turn into a double-digit loss for UAB. The Blazers lost badly to all three AP Ranked opponents, and while UCLA isn’t quite of that caliber, it is a storied program that isn’t looking to lose to a mid-major school. Maybe that is motivation enough to make sure to cover a (seemingly) insulting spread. UAB has never made it to the Final 4 in its 14 NCAA tournament appearances and is 9-14 in the NCAA tournament. The factors alone seem to indicate that UCLA is just going to be way too much.

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