As UCLA faces its final stretch of regular-season Pac-12 games in the next three weeks, the team once again scans the horizon ahead and takes a squinting look at the NCAA Tournament.
Although the Bruins’ preseason expectations have been shattered, patched together and shattered once more, this team still reserves the potential to achieve decent success in the big tourney this March.
We can almost guarantee that this team won’t be adding a championship banner to the rafters in Pauley Pavilion this season, but it can still realistically win a game or two in the tourney.
With only a handful of conference games remaining, the Bruins need to maximize their remaining games as preparation for the NCAA Tournament.
UCLA needs to be at its best in March in order to perform well in the tourney.
The "Big Dance" is only a month away; it’s time the Bruins start rehearsing their steps.
Plain and simple, the only way that UCLA can win games is by shooting well.
The Bruins’ lack of physical forwards who can hold their own in the paint will continue to haunt them in rebounding and subsequent second-chance points.
Regardless of how solid perimeter defenders like Jordan Adams and Norman Powell are, UCLA’s interior defenders like the Wear twins and Kyle Anderson are out-matched in the paint and will continue to be a weakness for the Bruins for the remainder of the season.
Therefore, in order for UCLA to win its last few conference games and subsequently gain momentum heading into the NCAA Tournament, it will have to compensate for its defensive discrepancy with shooting efforts around 50 percent.
When the Bruins shoot 54 percent from the field and 50 percent from beyond the arc, as they did against Stanford, they can afford to surrender 80 points and allow a staggering 78 shot attempts.
Contrarily, when the offense was cold, as it was against Arizona State (35% FG, 21% 3PT), UCLA can’t afford to endure a 70-plus shooting night from any team. As we saw in that game, the Bruins have a very slim chance of pulling out a victory if they can’t respond to a team with a strong power forward.
It’s simple, but worth nothing: UCLA needs to shoot well in order to close out the Pac-12 regular season strong and garner momentum for the NCAA Tournament.
After defeating Arizona and then losing to Arizona State in a road trip earlier this season, the Bruins have a great opportunity to prove themselves as a team when they take on these teams at home.
Conquering Arizona was a surprising-yet-fulfilling victory, but losing to ASU a few days later further characterized UCLA as a streaky, inconsistent team that is incapable of repeating good performances on a game-to-game basis.
The Bruins can shake their inconsistency by winning both of these games. It would not only prove to them that can win back-to-back games when it matters, but would also bolster them to the top of the standings against two teams currently vying for first place in the Pac-12.
More importantly, these would be quality wins that would give UCLA confidence heading into the NCAA Tournament.
Being an odd-number season, UCLA will end its regular season Pac-12 schedule with two road games against the Washington schools, concluding with a game against the Huskies on March 9.
Regardless of whether the Bruins are able to capitalize on their home-court advantage in their penultimate series against Arizona, they’ll need to play good basketball in their last two games of the season in order remain on the right track for a successful NCAA berth.
Having recently defeated both Washington and Washington State at home, UCLA should be able to pull off a victory against both teams, which are both positioned at the lower half of the conference with losing records (Wash.: 6-7, WSU: 2-11).
In the event that the Bruins aren’t able to tally W’s in these two games, it’s nevertheless crucial that they play good basketball.
The quality of their play in these two concluding games will be measured not only by their shooting and interior defense, but will also be judged based on their intensity and determination to win.
A win against Washington would be ideal, but if UCLA loses that game, it’s important that they keep their heads high and maintain perspective for the more important games to come.
The pieces are in place.
Top recruit Shabazz Muhammad is playing excellently, Jordan Adams and point guard Larry Drew II are shooting well from the perimeter and the Wear twins’ jumpers are on.
What has been missing from this team that has been detrimental to its success all season long is its lack of team chemistry.
As the season has progressed, UCLA has become a closer-knit group and seems to have jelled significantly after Shabazz Muhammad fired up the team before taking on Stanford.
Any team is at its best when team chemistry is at its highest, especially a young team like UCLA that has seemed to lack team leadership throughout the season.
As nauseating a ride as this season has been for the Bruins, if they can band together towards the end of the regular season and into the Pac-12 Tournament, they’ll be at their best heading into the NCAA Tournament.