Opinion: UCLA, Texas and Providence making most of second chances on way to NCAA tournament

Thank goodness college basketball is the sport where second, third and fourth chances abound. That’s for the big boys only, of course.

Opportunities to wipe away early season sins are always waiting around the next pick-and-roll if you live in the game’s upper echelon. Opportunities to take down a big boy in January or February can help pave the way to a spot in the big show in March. That’s certainly the tune that Mick Cronin and Shaka Smart and Ed Cooley and many, many other coaches are singing these days.

After stepping in one mess after another for the first month or two of the season, teams like UCLA, Texas and Providence can now see the light of the NCAA tournament coming into view.

UCLA forward Jamie Jaquez celebrates with guard Tyger Campbell (10) after his three-point basket against Arizona State Sun Devils during the second half at Pauley Pavilion. (Photo: Richard Mackson, USA TODAY Sports)

The calendar flipped to March over the weekend. Selection Sunday is two weeks away. This is the time to put some last-minute polish on those tournament resumes and make sure the selection committee is looking at the best teams and is able to overlook the mistakes of ones that took a while to find their best selves.

“We’ve come a long way, obviously,” said Cronin, who is in his first season in Westwood. “There were days when I didn’t know if I’d make it through the year, physically. I was just hoping in December that I could make it to January then I was hoping to make it to February and stay upright.”

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After a non-league schedule with losses to Hofstra and Cal State Fullerton it was easy to see why just getting to January was an achievement. A 1-3 start in the Pac-12 saw the Bruins in last place but then, not surprisingly, a young team and its seasoned, winning coach started to come together. On a run of seven consecutive victories, UCLA (19-11, 12-5) sits atop Bill Walton’s Conference of Champions.

UCLA’s rise from the ashes has been duplicated at other schools. Texas was off to a 4-8 start in the Big 12 and going nowhere. Four wins in a row later – including defeats of ranked foes West Virginia and Texas Tech last week – and the Longhorns have life.

Providence started the season 6-6 and was labeled the biggest underachiever in the country. Now the Friars are mowing through the Big East, beating five ranked teams in a row, including Seton Hall, Creighton and Villanova.

“It’s a long time ago but you own it because it was true,” Providence's Cooley said of losses to Northwestern, Long Beach State and other lesser-lights. “We didn’t play well. We weren’t coached well. We weren’t on the same page. It’s not where you start, it’s where you’re going and where you’re going to finish.”

Not everybody is happy that college basketball offers virtually unending chances at redemption. Schools from mid and low-major programs operate under very different rules, but that’s not changing anytime soon. The big money schools own the heavy hand in how the NCAA operates its tournament and those guidelines aren’t about to change.

So Northern Iowa can’t stub its toe against Indiana State or Bradley and Saint Mary’s had better not lose to Pepperdine or San Diego. Their tournament hopes end. In the meantime Indiana (NET of 54 and 8-10 in the Big Ten) will find its way into the field.

This upside down college hoop season has offered a slew of redemption cases. Some coaches laugh about those rough nights from months ago, and then there’s John Calipari. He should be smiling these days because his Kentucky team just locked up the Southeastern Conference title with a week remaining. Yet Coach Cal gets a little prickly when his team’s stubbed toe moment is brought up.

“You know what’s amazing? When anybody talks about our season, you know what they say? ‘Evansville! Evansville! Evansville!’ Calipari said Saturday after a home win over Auburn, his team’s eighth in a row and 12th in 13 contests.

Yes, the Wildcats did somehow lose (at Rupp Arena, of course) to Evansville. That’s the same Purple Aces team that’s sitting at 0-18 in the Missouri Valley Conference. But as Cal correctly points out, you can survive an ugly one-off when it occurs back in November.

“I mean, did we play anyone else?” Calipari said. “It’s like, hey they can’t be all that because they lost to…Evansville. How can they be any good? They lost to Evansville November 12.”

Since Christmas Day, Kentucky has wins over seven top-50 teams in the NCAA’s NET ranking. Calipari has one of the more dangerous, surging teams in the country. Providence has six wins against teams in the NET top 25. No one wants to see the defense-first Friars this month.

UCLA (18-11) doesn’t own similar credentials. The Bruins struggled (6-6) out of conference and sit at a problematic 76th in the NET. But can the NCAA really say no to the Pac-12 regular season champs?

That would be no way to treat the Conference of Champions.

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