UCLA Basketball: The Bruins' Road to a Pac-12 Tournament Title
As a direct result of their disappointing regular season, UCLA now has but one chance to make it into the Big Dance—win the Pac-12 tournament.
To win, UCLA will need to win four games in four days, some against conference opponents as desperate as they are. Ever since the tournament expanded to four rounds in 2006, no team has ever won four games in a row.
Surprisingly, UCLA might do just that.
Despite finishing fifth in a bad Pac-12, the Bruins were closer to winning the conference than their mediocre finish would indicate. At 11-7 in Pac-12 play, UCLA finished only three games back of 14-4 Washington, whom they just beat 75-69.
Looking at their seven losses, it’s easy to pick out five that could have arguably gone the other way.
Losses against Stanford, Oregon State, Washington and Arizona were all decided by three points or less on the road.
Up at the Farm, the Cardinal bested the Bruins by just one point, and UCLA held a sizable lead against in Seattle (where they never win) going into the game’s final stages. Had the Bruins executed a few possessions better against the Beavers and Wildcats, those games could have been wins as well.
The 75-68 score line that accompanied UCLA’s loss at Oregon hides the Bruins’ 13-point halftime lead. Had UCLA played anywhere near the kind of defense we’ve seen from them at home, that’s another win.
Turn those losses into the wins they could have rationally been, and instead of finishing 11-7, UCLA wins the Pac-12 with a 16-2 conference record. Their overall record looks more impressive, too, morphing from 18-13 to 23-8.
Anyone think they miss the tournament then? Would Ben Howland’s job be in question then?
With that in mind, it’s no shock that some have already predicted the dark-horse Bruins to win the Pac-12 tournament despite being a No. 5 seed.
While the superstitious fan in me is already regretting jinxing it, so do I. Going game by game, here’s my take on how UCLA will win the Pac-12 tournament.
Wednesday, March 7th vs. No. 12 USC
UCLA swept the regular-season series with their crosstown rivals, earning double-digit wins both in both meetings.
With the momentum from wins over the Washington schools to end the year and the understanding that one loss in the Pac-12 tournament will effectively end their season, I don’t see the Bruins slipping up against USC.
What was usually a hotly contested, entertaining rivalry has been less so this year due to the Trojans awfulness.
To be fair, it’s not the program’s fault, nor is it the fault of Kevin O’Neil. What killed USC this year has been injuries—and a lot of them—to key scholarship players.
With Jio Fontan, Dewayne Dedmon and three others lost for the season, O’Neil has manned the Trojan ship with a skeleton crew of lesser scholarship players and walk-ons—players who got more minutes than they ever would (or should) have.
Though USC will come into Wednesday’s matchup plenty motivated to spoil UCLA’s NCAA dreams, they simply do not have the manpower to stop them. The Bruins should get whatever they want inside, and the senior guards, knowing that every game could be their last as a collegiate athlete, will play accordingly.
If UCLA can contain leading-scorer Maurice Jones, this one will finish as scripted.
Thursday, March 8th vs. No. 4 Arizona
Their first real test of the tournament, UCLA should have learned enough during their 65-63 to change the outcome this time around.
Sean Miller is as crafty a tactician as there is in college basketball, and he proved it when the Bruins came to Tucson.
Knowing full well Josh Smith would be the Bruins' key to victory, he had his players attack him repeatedly on offense, forcing the foul-prone big man to play himself out of the game.
It worked beautifully, with Smith logging only 14 minutes on the floor.
Don’t expect Ben Howland to be fooled the second time around. He’ll play more zone against Arizona to limit Smith’s exposure defending high-ball screens and do his best to keep Smith on the floor. The big man just has to follow through.
While Smith will certainly be a factor, the player Howland needs to come through in the second round is Lazeric Jones. In their two-point loss to the Wildcats, Jones scored a miserable two points on 1-of-12 shooting.
He missed all of his threes, blew layups and was overall just absent from the proceedings.
UCLA will need Jones offensively if they hope to advance, but they’ll need his defense equally as much. Kyle Fogg is a ticking bomb waiting to explode, and he will need to be defused if the Bruins expect to win. A senior guard with his team on the cusp of an NCAA bid, Fogg will not go quietly.
This will be a close game, but a winnable one if the Bruins play the way they can on both sides of the ball.
Friday, March 9th vs. No. 1 Washington
This is where most predict UCLA’s valiant tournament run to end, against an NCAA-bound Washington squad hell-bent on avenging their recent loss to the Bruins at the Sports Arena.
Still, in two meetings with Washington, UCLA has proven that they are the Huskies’ equal and are more that capable of advancing past them to the championship game.
To isolate why UCLA beat Washington last week, you can’t look at individual scoring. Both teams had three players in double figures, with one each topping 20 points.
You can’t look at field goal percentage (both shot in the mid-40s), three-pointers (Washington only made three more than UCLA at a greater clip) or rebounds (UCLA only won that battle by five, and snagged just one more offensive board).
You can’t look at turnovers (each team had 14), assists (UCLA had five less than Washington) or steals (Washington had 10 to the Bruins’ nine).
The key statistic which separated both teams was…
UCLA, a squad solidly in the bottom third of the Pac-12 in foul shooting (.664 as a team), beat Washington at the line. Their 15-of-21 performance, compared to the Huskies' 6-of-11, proved to be the difference in the game.
Washington committed seven more fouls than UCLA, and the Bruins made them pay.
With Washington still even worse than the Bruins from the foul stripe (.618 as a team), if this game is decided by free throws (and it will be), UCLA will be in good shape.
That being said, Washington will be better rested. If this contest turns into the kind of uptempo romp Lorenzo Romar no doubt would prefer, the Huskies could easily take it.
UCLA will have to make the conference’s high-octane top seed play a half-court game, or risk being run out of the Staples Center.
If UCLA can make their freebies and slow down the game, and if Josh Smith has another big night, the Bruins could pull the upset.
Saturday, March 10th vs. No. 2 California
Heavily legged after three consecutive grueling tournament days, UCLA will probably face second-seeded California in the title game.
This is perhaps the worst matchup UCLA could have, with the Golden Bears easily dispensing with more energetic Bruins sides twice in the regular season.
Bruins fans better pray Cal is out before Saturday.
If the Golden Bears do make it through upset bids by Stanford and Oregon, it will be the first time the two teams have met in the final since UCLA torched them by 19 in 2006.
The roles have clearly been reversed the six years since, with California the clear favorites in this contest.
Should it be UCLA and California in the tournament’s marquee matchup, UCLA will have a slim chance to win, but a chance all the same.
A look back to their past two meetings in 2012 will shed some light on the path they must tread.
Back in January, the Golden Bears mauled the Bruins 85-69 at Haas Pavilion, but many forget that at the half, Cal only had a 40-39 lead. UCLA matched them blow-for-blow, but ultimately the home side’s attack proved too lethal, and the Bruin defense to leaky.
The three-headed monster of Pac-12 Player (and Defensive Player) of the Year Jorge Gutierrez, Justin Cobbs and Allen Crabbe finished with 49 of their team’s 80 points, dealing out 22 assists in the process. Three other Cal players scored in double figures, but it was the three guards who put UCLA to the sword down the stretch.
In February, UCLA fell down early at home and never stood back up as the Bears handed UCLA its only home conference loss of the year, 73-63. Again it was Gutierrez, Cobbs and Crabbe who dealt most of the damage, all scoring in double figures for 62 percent of their team’s offense.
What do we take from this?
UCLA can afford to be beaten by one guard, or maybe two, but not all three. Allowing that kind of effectiveness from those three players is about as clear a death sentence as you can get.
If the Bruins want to win, they need to limit the Cal guards. That responsibility falls on Lazeric Jones, Jerime Anderson, Tyler Lamb and Norman Powell.
It wouldn’t hurt for UCLA to shoot a little better from the field, either. While Cal shot over 50 percent in both meetings, UCLA shot on average in the low 40s.
Much like the Washington game, the Bruins will try to shorten the game with a slow half-court tempo, making it critical that they consistently come away with points, or they will face an insurmountable deficit.
If they play outstanding defense and shoot well from the field, UCLA will have a shot to take the Pac-12 tournament crown and punch their ticket to the Big Dance.
It will take a Herculean effort from all those involved, but the talent and commitment is there for a miracle to occur.