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SPORTS DIGEST: UCLA is third seed in March Madness; USC squeaks in

Some people think March Madness, the popular nickname for the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, is the greatest sports event of the year.

Three weeks featuring 63 basketball games to determine the best college basketball team in the country. Plenty of action, great drama, tremendous story lines and great competition make the tournament must-see viewing for many sports fans.

Toss in the tournament bracket contests, various office pools and Las Vegas betting lines and there is something for everybody, which explains the tournament’s popularity.

And, locally, this year’s tournament has some relevance because UCLA has a chance to make a deep run in the tournament.

The Bruins are the third-seeded team in the South Regional and play Kent State March 17 at 7 p.m. They have a rough road in that regional, having to get past Kentucky possibly in the Sweet 16 before a potential match with top-seeded North Carolina in the Elite 8.

In the Final Four, the Bruins would most likely play another top seed, Kansas before advancing to the championship game against Duke, Villanova or possibly even Arizona, a team that has already defeated the Bruins twice.

But the Bruins have a chance to win because they have the best offensive team in the country. They scored more points per game than any other team in the country.

Senior guard Isaac Hamilton, out of Bellflower’s St. John Bosco High School, will end his UCLA career in the NCAA tournament. (Photo by Nick Koza)

Senior guard Isaac Hamilton, out of Bellflower’s St. John Bosco High School, will end his UCLA career in the NCAA tournament. (Photo by Nick Koza)

The Bruins are balanced. They have two senior leaders in guards Isaac Hamilton, from St. John Bosco High in Bellflower, and Bryce Alford, the coach’s son.

The Bruins also have two talented freshmen who probably will be playing in the NBA this time next year in point guard Lonzo Ball and forward TJ Leaf. The Bruins also have Aaron Holiday coming off the bench who can score points in a hurry.

But if the Bruins have a weakness, it is the rest of the bench.

The only two players off the bench that see a lot of minutes are freshman Ike Anigbogu, a 6-10 shot blocker and rebounder; and 6-11 junior Gyorgy Golomon, who has many of the same abilities as Anigbogu, although he isn’t as athletic.

It’s been 22 years since the Bruins have won a championship, which is way too long for many of the UCLA faithful who were spoiled by the 10 titles in 12 years John Wooden’s teams won in the 1960s and ’70s.

The 1995 team that won a title for Jim Harrick had a lot of the same things going for it that this year’s Bruins do.

It’s a wide open tournament this year with all four top seeds, three of the four second seeds and two of the four third seeds capable of winning it all, and that’s before the upsets start happening.

My initial bracket has a final four of UCLA, Kansas, Duke and Notre Dame. North Carolina, Kentucky, Villanova and Arizona could easily crash that list.

The tournament kicks off with 16 games March 16 and 16 more March 17, followed by eight games a day on the March 18-19.

Keep the remote handy, because games will be on Channel 2, TBS, TNT and Tru, sometimes on all four channels at once.

There’s a reason they call it March Madness. And it all ends April 3, with the championship game in Glendale, Arizona.

USC senior Elijah Stewart of Westchester High School is nearing the end of his four-year career at USC. The Trojans played in one of the first four games March 15 against Providence in the NCAA Tournament. If the Trojans survived that game, they face SMU March 17. (Photo by Mario Villegas)

USC senior Elijah Stewart of Westchester High School is nearing the end of his four-year career at USC. The Trojans played in one of the first four games March 15 against Providence in the NCAA Tournament. If the Trojans survived that game, they face SMU March 17. (Photo by Mario Villegas)

PLAY-IN POSITION: The USC Trojans also made the NCAA Tournament, sort of. The Trojans played in one of the first four games as the NCAA now likes to call the play-in games, March 15 against Providence, the team that knocked them out of last year’s tournament.

Providence junior guard Kyron Cartwright is from Compton High School. He is the Friars third-leading scorer, averaging 11.4 points per game.

USC had more wins and fewer losses that the other three teams that were 11th seeds for the first four games, Providence, Kansas State and Wake Forest.

If USC gets past Providence, it will face SMU, a sixth seed that the Trojans defeated back in November, March 17. If the Trojans get past SMU, they play the winner of the Baylor-New Mexico State game March 19. Baylor is the third seed in the Eastern Regional.

It’s not an easy path for the Trojans, who had high hopes for the season after going 13-0 in pre-conference games. The Trojans, though, were only 10-8 in Pac 12 Conference play and were the only Pac 12 team not ranked in the top 10 nationally to make the tournament.

Coach Andy Enfield took a Cinderella team from Florida Gulf Coast College from a 15th seed to the Sweet 16 in 2013.

USC would become a similar Cinderella story if it cracks the Sweet 16 this year.

ACADEMIC RANKINGS: With the start of the NCAA Tournament comes the release of the academic rankings for the 68 tournament teams.

UCLA tied for the 48th-highest Academic Progress Rate among the 68 teams in the tournament, 16 spots lower than when it was last in the tournament two years ago.

USC tied for 52nd, seven spots lower than one year ago, according to “Keeping Score When It Counts: Graduation Rates and Academic Progress Rates for the 2017 NCAA Men’s Division I Basketball Tournament Teams,” a study conducted by the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida, based on figures reported by the NCAA.

UCLA’s rate was 962, matching Marquette, one point behind UC Davis and within eight points of seven other universities. The Bruins had a 969 rate in 2015, 32nd in the field, 951 in 2014, tying Louisiana-Lafayette for 46th, and 942 in 2013, the 11th lowest in the tournament.

USC’s rate was 959, matching Texas Southern, one point behind St. Mary’s and Minnesota. The Trojans rate in 2015 was also 959.

USC’s rate was impacted by player defections after the coaching change that resulted in the hiring of Andy Enfield prior to the 2013-14 season, USC Sports Information Director Tim Tessalone told City News Service.

The average in the field was 971.78.

USC’s ranking will increase significantly in the coming years as the single-year APR for the 2011-12 year is removed from the average, Tessalone said. The Trojans had a perfect 1,000 APR for the 2014-15 year.

The team posted its highest semester cumulative grade point average in the 2016 fall semester, Tessalone said. Records have been kept since 2000.

Seven teams had perfect scores of 1,000 — Bucknell, Florida, Kentucky, Louisville, Michigan State, Seton Hall and West Virginia. Duke, Gonzaga, Michigan, and Virginia Commonwealth were next at 995, followed by defending champion Villanova at 994.

PREP PLAYOFFS: The Windward High girls basketball team is the last area team standing in the high school basketball playoffs. Windward defeated Sierra Canyon, 68-65 in overtime March 14 to advance to the Southern California Division I Regional Final March 18 against Ventura.

The Carson boys team lost to La Mesa Helix High (Bill Walton’s alma mater), 56-53 in the Division III semifinal March 14. The Leuzinger girls team fell to Rosary, 63-46 March 14 in the Division III semifinals as well.

If Windward defeats Ventura March 18, it will advance to the state championship game March 24.

Lakers guard Jordan Clarkson has returned to the starting lineup as the Lakers finish the 2016-17 season. Clarkson scored 30 points coming off the bench against the Philadelphia 76ers March 12. (Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Lakers)

Lakers guard Jordan Clarkson has returned to the starting lineup as the Lakers finish the 2016-17 season. Clarkson scored 30 points coming off the bench against the Philadelphia 76ers March 12. (Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Lakers)

MELTING DOWN: In professional basketball, it looks like the Clippers and Lakers are both sinking fast, although the Clippers will manage to make the playoffs despite their dismal showing recently.

After a 14-2 start, the Clippers are playing barely .500 ball since mid-December.

They have fallen to fifth place in the Western Conference rankings and would play the Utah Jazz in a first-round playoff series if the playoffs started next week.

The Clippers blew a seven-point halftime lead March 13 in losing to the Jazz in Salt Lake City. They don’t want to fall any further in the West, because that will hurt their chances of winning a first-round series.

The Lakers, on the other hand, are in the same situation as they were this time last year — hoping not to win too many games so it doesn’t cost them a high draft pick.

Once again, the Lakers have a protected pick in the draft. The Lakers keep the pick if they draft first, second or third. Otherwise it goes to Philadelphia, which acquired the pick in a trade from Phoenix, which was part of the Steve Nash deal.

Head coach Luke Walton is taking a long look at some of the youngsters in the last 15 games. David Nwaba, who is playing on his second 10-day contract, has started the last two games. He is an undrafted rookie out of Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.

Walton also put Jordan Clarkson in the starting lineup and is playing DeAngelo Russell off the bench for the time being.

Timofey Mosgov and Luol Deng, the Lakers two highest paid players, have been buried at the end of the bench recently.

 

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