Louisville, KY (SportsNetwork.com) - The second matchup on Thursday's slate of NCAA Tournament games at the KFC Yum! Center features the 11th-seeded UCLA Bruins taking on the 18th-ranked and sixth-seeded SMU Mustangs in South Regional action.
The winner moves on the face the victor in the earlier matchup between the 14th-seeded UAB Blazers and third-seeded Iowa State Cyclones.
UCLA's presence in the national postseason ruffled a few feathers, since the Bruins were ousted in the semifinals of the Pac-12 Tournament and possessed a resume some believed didn't warrant a spot. UCLA, entering its 47th tournament all-time, dropped a 70-64 decision to Arizona in the conference tournament. Still, UCLA will be looking for its 12th national title.
SMU won the American Athletic Conference's automatic bid after defeating Connecticut in what was essentially a home game for the Huskies in Hartford, 62-54. This is the 11th appearance in the NCAA Tournament for SMU, whose coach, Larry Brown, took UCLA to the 1980 national title game.
UCLA owns a 2-0 all-time series record over SMU, though the two programs haven't met on the basketball court since Dec. 28, 1976 (a 99-71 Bruins victory).
The Bruins faced Arizona in last year's Pac-12 title game and pulled off a huge upset, earning the conference's automatic bid, although the Wildcats still garnered a top seed in the national tournament. The Bruins kept things pretty close again in this season's semifinal matchup. The two sides went into the break knotted at 27-27, but Arizona came out in the second half and won the battle at the free-throw line to earn the win. Norman Powell scored 21 points to pace UCLA, while Tony Parker chipped in with 15 points. Bryce Alford collected 10 points in the losing effort.
The Bruins own one of the better offenses in the Pac-12, netting 72.0 ppg on 44.1 percent shooting. UCLA'S starting lineup has been fantastic, with all five players averaging a double-digit scoring total, led by Powell's 16.4 ppg. However, there's a significant drop off from fifth-leading scorer Isaac Hamilton (10.7 ppg) to the sixth in Thomas Welsh (3.9 ppg).
SMU did a number on UConn in the first half of Sunday's AAC title game, leading the Huskies as the teams broke for halftime, 33-19. Connecticut was able to wake the crowd up and make things interesting in the second half, but the Ponies held on down the stretch thanks to a 17-of-21 mark from the free- throw line in the latter period. Markus Kennedy scored 15 points to pace the squad, while Yanick Moreira and Nic Moore each chipped in 11 points. Ben Moore added 10 points, and Sterling Brown pulled down a team-best 12 rebounds in the win.
Nic Moore has served as the floor general for the Mustangs all season long, but he's also the go-to scorer when the team needs a basket. He enters the tournament leading SMU in scoring with 14.2 ppg, adding in 172 assists to pace the squad. Kennedy (11.7 ppg) and Moreira (11.2 ppg) level off a trio of double-digit scorers for the Mustangs, who are netting 69.4 ppg as a unit, which ranked first in the AAC. The team's defense has been stellar as well, holding opponents to 59.8 ppg, which could spell early doom for the Bruins.