Bruins players went through practice Thursday with Minnesota on their… (Eric Gay / Associated Press )
AUSTIN, Texas – This is not the first time UCLA has been the underdog heading into an NCAA tournament game.
The Bruins, though, seem perplexed. They are the higher-seeded team against Minnesota in the Erwin Center tonight. But the Gophers are three-point favorites.
UCLA players call it a lack of faith. Others would say it’s a lack of Jordan Adams.
Adams broke his right foot in the Pac-12 tournament semifinals and had surgery Wednesday, the same day the Bruins left for Austin. It cost UCLA its second-leading scorer and one of its top defenders.
So the sixth-seeded Bruins (25-9) are going to have a short trip, experts say, even if their first round opponent is the 11th-seeded Gophers, a team that has lost 11 of its last 16 games.
That was enough to create a chip.
“After our first practice, our locker room had a bunch of quotes and posts and stuff from people who might be doubting us,” senior guard Larry Drew II said. “Analysts or writers or bloggers or whoever.”
The message from Coach Ben Howland was clear.
“He noticed and he definitely wanted to spread the word that people were counting us out,” Drew said. “We’ve been proving people wrong all year.”
That was a running theme in the locker room Thursday.
“Everyone is saying that Minnesota is going to beat us because we have one player out,” freshman Shabazz Muhammad said. “We’re still a good team.”
But probably not as good.
Sophomore Norman Powell replaces Adams in the lineup. He was adequate against Oregon in the Pac-12 tournament final, making three of six shots, but he isn’t close to the threat that Adams presents.
Adams scored in double figures in 25 of 34 games, including 24 against Arizona in the tournament semifinals. His absence frees the Gophers (20-12) to double-team Muhammad, the Bruins’ leading scorer.
UCLA has been out-rebounded in 18 of its last 21 games. Losing Adams makes matters worse. He is averaging only 3.8 rebounds but leads the team with 73 steals.
The Bruins offset their rebounding shortcomings by creating turnovers and scoring in transition.
“We know Minnesota’s going to try to grind it out and beat us on the boards,” junior forward Travis Wear said. “I think that we’re going to prove that our conference is very tough this year.”