LOUISVILLE — UCLA is keenly aware that are questions about whether its worthy of an NCAA Tournament bid.
The Bruins' answer: Whatever.
For what it's worth, five other tournament schools have the same number of losses as UCLA (20-13). And the 11th-seeded Bruins have won 12 of their past 18 since a five-game midseason slide.
UCLA believes its body of work in one of the nation's toughest conferences speaks for itself. The Bruins will try to prove in Thursday's South region second-round game against No. 6 seed SMU (27-6) that their recent play is more indicative of their credentials than the losing streak or a 39-point loss to No. 1 Kentucky.
The Mustangs are led by former UCLA coach Larry Brown, a subplot less important to the Bruins than silencing their critics.
“I'm not really worried about what's being said,” said senior guard Norman Powell, the Bruins' leading scorer at 16.4 points per game. “I think this team is taking it as a little bit of fuel to their fire and more motivation to go out there and play.”
UCLA faces a Mustangs squad led by former Bruins coach Larry Brown, a subplot less important to them than silencing their critics.
“It's been kind of funny to us,” UCLA coach Steve Alford said Wednesday of the attention. “When you look at resumes and RPIs that were behind us, it's not like we were the last one in. We didn't get an 8 or 7 seed either. We got an 11 seed, but we weren't the last team in either.
“I think our guys have done enough. We were in a very good league. We finished fourth in that league. … I think the problem is everybody saw us play Kentucky (an 83-44 loss) and that was in December, where we scored 7 points in the half. We're a much better team now.”
The Bruins showed that in the Pac-12 Conference tournament with a 70-64 semifinal loss to eventual champion Arizona, now a No. 2 seed in the West region. They enter winners of six of 10 and have scored at least 85 points in three of five — all victories.
While skeptics focus on UCLA's record, Brown wants his team to concentrate on locking down a Bruins starting lineup all averaging in double figures.
That is, once the Mustangs get past the newness of being in the tournament for the first time since 1993.
“I just want them to worry about how we play,” said the Hall of Fame coach, who's back in the field for the first time since leading Kansas to the 1988 national championship.
“You don't have a lot of time to prepare for the people you're playing. So we've got to do the things we value and do them well.”
The Bruins believe they're doing that, even if their record doesn't reflect it.
Here are some other things to look for when No. 11 seed UCLA faces No. 6 SMU on Thursday:
FORTY-PERCENT SOLUTION: SMU ranks seventh nationally in field goal defense at 38 percent and must shut down a UCLA offense averaging 72 points per game. Holding opponents below 40 percent from the field has been the key for the Mustangs, who have held 20 of 33 teams below that level and are 19-1 when that happens. The Bruins are shooting 44 percent.
HISTORY LESSON: Alford was a teenager when Brown coached UCLA to the 1980 NCAA final against Louisville and has a fuzzy memory of his two seasons in Westwood. But that loss is part of the program's storied tradition that players see every day, even though their knowledge of Brown is more recent. “Obviously, coach Brown was at UCLA and had a lot of success there in his few years here,” Alford said. “But they know coach Brown more from what he did professionally and what he's done even beyond the UCLA years.”
DISH MASTER: As if averaging 15.1 points per contest isn't impressive enough, UCLA sophomore guard Bryce Alford ranks 43rd nationally in assists at 5.0 per outing. The coach's son has recorded seven assists each in two of his past five games.
LONG TIME, NO SEE: The schools are meeting for just the third time overall, the first time in postseason and first time at a neutral site. UCLA has won both previous meetings at Pauley Pavilion, the last one 99-71 in the 1976-77 season.