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UCLA unexpectedly living up to school's NCAA Tournament standards

Kevon Looney of the UCLA Bruins looks to

Kevon Looney of the UCLA Bruins looks to shoot a free throw against the Southern Methodist Mustangs during the second round of the 2015 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournamenat at the KFC YUM! Center on March 19, 2015 in Louisville, Kentucky. Credit: Getty Images / Andy Lyons

In an NCAA Tournament dominated by status quo at the top, there still is room for the unforeseen. The most notable surprise is that UCLA is so surprising.

Calling UCLA's success unexpected seems as odd as saying it is a shock that Warren Buffett has a few dollars to spend. Yet this did not begin as a stellar season for the Bruins, regardless of their tradition and full trophy case next to Pauley Pavilion. They were a controversial choice just to get in the field, let alone to upset SMU and then throttle UAB.

While the tournament's headliner is unbeaten Kentucky (36-0), pursuing perfection in the manner of John Wooden's old UCLA teams, UCLA (22-13) is unusually compelling as the lowest seed in the Sweet 16.

Having entered as No. 11 in the South Regional -- which matches the number of men's basketball championships the school has won -- the Bruins surprisingly have advanced to face No. 2 seed Gonzaga Friday night in Houston.

"They competed like crazy," UCLA coach Steve Alford said of his players. "They're proof that, if you're resilient and you persevere when tough times hit, good things can eventually happen."

The second weekend of this year's Big Dance does not feature a Cinderella entry like Butler, George Mason and VCU, mid-majors who kept dancing into the Final Four. Even the East Regional, which lost its top two seeds, is filled with teams that have premier pedigrees and accomplished coaches -- Louisville, Michigan State, North Carolina State, Oklahoma.

UCLA is the standard-bearer for overachievers, a unique role.

"I've always been proud to be able to wear those four letters across my chest every game," senior guard Norman Powell said. "I'm proud to be a Bruin and I'm a Bruin for life."

Forward Kevon Looney, a freshman from Milwaukee, said, "UCLA history is a big part of the reason I came here. I got to meet Bill Walton. He's a great guy. Everyone else here taught me a lot."

Alford, who played for Bob Knight at Indiana, said, "You look at history: The most national titles, it's UCLA. The most Pac-12 titles, it's UCLA by twofold. You look at most NBA draft picks, it's UCLA. Most NBA first-round picks, it's UCLA. Most NBA All-Stars, UCLA. It's just a very special place. The challenge is, can you live up to that standard?"

For much of this season, the Bruins did not. They lost five in a row early, some in ugly fashion. But they have made the most of the postseason, what with Alford's son Bryce sinking nine three-pointers against SMU and center Tony Parker dominating inside against UAB.

They lost to Gonzaga in December, although Powell said the 87-74 defeat at home actually helped UCLA with the NCAA selection committee. "We took them right down to the wire," the guard said.

He might have been overstating it, and he didn't mention that the game began the losing streak. But that was then. The Bruins are better now and the Sweet 16 is a new season for college basketball's old flame.

New York Sports