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Inside the Bracket: UCLA needs a splash in Maui

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After back-to-back home losses to Loyola Marymount and Middle Tennessee State, the UCLA Bruins head to the Maui Invitational with a sense of urgency.  And the bracket doesn’t exactly do the Bruins any favors.  Here’s why: UCLA opens with host Chaminade.  It’s a lose-only proposition.  Besides an 0-3 start, a loss would push the Bruins into the Consolation Bracket – meaning UCLA would likely be grouped with Georgetown, Tennessee, and the loser of the Michigan-Memphis game.  Of that group, only Michigan or Memphis is an NCAA-caliber opponent at this juncture.

The good news for UCLA?  Opportunity awaits.  A victory over Chaminade would vault the Bruins into a potential semifinal matchup with Kansas.  It would also assure the Bruins of playing two quality opponents – Michigan, Memphis, and Duke are grouped in the upper half of the bracket.  UCLA’s remaining non-conference schedule is pretty light; a game with Texas is the highlight.  The Bruins need to make a splash in Maui or risk a long uphill climb toward Selection Sunday. 

A quick glance into Maui:

Favorite:  Duke.  While putting some new pieces together, the Blue Devils arrive in Maui with solid wins over Belmont, Michigan State, and Davidson.  That’s a pretty decent opening slate.  An opening-round victory over Tennessee would match the Blue Devils against either Michigan or Memphis.  The title game would be against Kansas, Georgetown, or UCLA.  Duke would be favored in all of those matchups.  Thus, they are the team to beat.

Darkhorse:  Michigan.  The Wolverines’ style under John Beilein can create matchup problems – especially when the Wolverines are knocking down perimeter shots.  If Michigan can control temple and force turnovers out of its 1-3-1, the Wolverines have the ability to challenge anyone in the field.

Best Potential Matchup:  Duke vs. Memphis.  Both teams like to get out and go in transition.  This would be a full-court game with a mix of great shooters and great athletes.  By the way, both are Top 10 teams (in national rankings and our Power 24). 

Under the Radar:  Kansas.  Not a lot of people are talking about the Jayhawks, but there’s still enough talent to compete for a Big 12 title.  KU could easily reach the title game in Maui  – the path goes through Georgetown and UCLA (if the Bruins beat Chaminade).  Yes, the Jayhawks lost to Kentucky in New York, but the game was tied at halftime, and it took a second-half surge for the Wildcats to shake free.

Most Pressure:  UCLA.  See above.  The Bruins come to Maui with all sorts of questions. 

Most to Prove:  Memphis.  The Tigers had lofty expectations a year ago thanks to a top-flight recruiting class, but struggled to be consistent – especially against good competition outside the conference.  A year later, Memphis starts its season with similar expectations.  The Tigers are heavy favorites to roll through Conference USA and land a high seed in the NCAA tournament.   A couple of good wins in Maui will go a long way toward helping the Tigers reach at goal.

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