UCLA freshmen Tony Parker (left) and Jordan Adams will play a big role in the Bruins' Pac-12 title race.
UCLA certainly hasn’t taken the easiest route to get there, but it still remains within spitting distance of a regular-season Pac-12 title after defeating USC on Sunday.
There have been many obstacles along this bumpy road, but somehow—someway—the Bruins’ first of many lofty preseason goals is still achievable.
Winning conference would not only give UCLA a huge confidence boost for the Pac-12 Tournament but would, more importantly, bolster them up for the NCAA Tournament.
Before the Bruins began conference play, I laid out the blueprint for how the team could win the program’s first regular-season conference title since 2008.
Now only a half-game back in the conference standings after beating their crosstown rival, the blueprint is shrunk as UCLA concludes conference play with a challenging four-game stretch.
If executed with the required focus and precision, this team will notch the 41st regular-season conference title in Bruins’ history.
UCLA’s concluding home series against Arizona State and Arizona was expected to be a make-or-break series for their Pac-12 title hopes in the beginning of the season, and it certainly will be.
Of all the Pac-12 teams that could win the conference (Arizona, Oregon, UCLA, California, and Arizona State), the Bruins are faced with the toughest schedule.
They’ll close the season with an away series against the Washington schools, which makes it all the more important that they capitalize on their two remaining home games.
After stunning Arizona on its home court in January, UCLA understands how to attack the Wildcats, particularly in regard to their defensive approach.
Likewise, coach Ben Howland should able to plan a better defensive approach for ASU given that 7’2” center Jordan Bachynski isn’t going to shrink any time soon and will likely torment the Bruins’ weak interior defense once again.
The winner of the Pac-12 will likely possess 13 wins, as Arizona (11-4) and/or Oregon (11-4) will likely win two out of their remaining three games and Cal (10-5) may very well sweep their opponents in its concluding three-game home series.
Therefore, UCLA will need to win at least three of its remaining four games to win the conference, making their final home games all the more important.
While each of UCLA’s remaining conference games are important, a conference title would result from a combination of those games.
Hence, the Bruins need to remain level-headed for the remainder of the season, not just while they are on the court but while they are preparing for their next game as well.
No win will be more important than the next; no loss can be dwelled upon for more than a nanosecond. UCLA has very little time for error as they close out conference play, and they need to remain focused on the ultimate prize of winning the title more than anything.
Given their seesaw season to this point, the Bruins may very well lose to ASU in their next game, but they cannot afford to give any importance to a potentially demoralizing loss like that.
If we’ve learned anything from the Pac-12—not just from UCLA—this season, it’s that the conference is up for grabs.
While we expect the other top-tier teams to close out conference play with a bang, there’s a decent possibility things won’t go as planned.
Arizona and Oregon may lose both of their remaining road games, which would make it possible for the Bruins to split the title by winning only two games.
UCLA can’t underestimate any upcoming opponent, even Washington State, which they defeated by 14 points in Pauley Pavilion. Nor can they become overly confident should they defeat No. 11 Arizona again.
In order to win the Pac-12 title, the Bruins must keep their eyes on the prize.
If their past performance in conference play is an indication of what is to come, UCLA will continue to get beat on the boards and torn up in the paint. Those are only isolated problems if the Bruins aren’t shooting well.
It’s no coincidence that UCLA has only won conference games in which they have out-shot their opponents from beyond the arc.
When they shoot well from the perimeter, the dynamics of the game completely change. The opposing defense is kept on their toes and are unable to cheat off the Bruins’ guards to prevent them from penetrating the lane.
The good news for UCLA as they pursue the Pac-12 title is that their shooters are on.
The team’s most prominent outside shooter, Jordan Adams, has finally found his touch in Pac-12 play after struggling to find his stroke following a stellar shooting performance in non-conference play, which is crucial for the team.
Jordan Adams, who is shooting 51 percent from three and 62 percent from the field in his past four games, isn’t the only one who is shooting well.
After abysmal shooting displays in their first conference match-ups against USC and Washington, UCLA has shot an impressive 46 percent from three over the past four games, which has boosted the team.
The Bruins can only win amid their interior deficiencies if they shoot well, and three-point shooting is the most critical component to their success.
Freshman center Tony Parker’s season hasn’t quite been what both he and fans expected, but he’s had a significant impact on the team when he’s on the court.
Unfortunately, his minutes have been limited this season, which is mainly attributed to the high quantity of fouls he accrues in the few minutes he does spend on the court.
Parker still has plenty to learn as he continues to improve as a college big man, but that hasn’t stopped him from positively influencing the team this season.
As we also witnessed in UCLA’s upset of Arizona in the McKale Center, Parker had a substantial influence on the team in their most recent victory over USC.
Although he has only averaged 2.6 points-per-game this season, the 6’9” freshman brings tenacity to the court that is absent from the Bruins’ other forwards Travis and David Wear.
He may not have the stamina to play the entire game, and will likely get into foul trouble, but he has the interior presence that UCLA needs to power through their last four conference games.
Not only do his teammates recognize his effect on the team, but coach Howland may not have much of a choice but to continue to keep Parker on the court, as starter Travis Wear is still nursing a foot injury.
On a team with an overwhelming majority of players that have a year or less of college basketball experience, senior point guard Larry Drew II is the sole experienced starter on the team.
Thus, he should be trusted to guide UCLA down the stretch as they close out conference play in hopes of securing a Pac-12 title.
As the season has progressed, Drew, who has led the conference in assists (4th in the nation) and assist-turnover ratio (2nd in the nation) all season, has emerged as the Bruins’ main leader.
As their court general, the North Carolina transfer has effectively guided his young freshman teammates and helped keep them poised in tight situations.
While UCLA has struggled to secure a stable offensive identity throughout the season, eventually settling with a combination of a run-and-gun and half-court offense, the team has been best as of late when Drew is controlling the tempo of the offense.
Although his poor outside shooting in the beginning of conference play allowed the opposition to back off of him, Drew has tremendously improved his shot in the second half of Pac-12 play.
After establishing himself as a player the Bruins can trust late in the game with his buzzer-beating fall-away jumper against Washington, Drew has thrived.
In his last five games, the senior point guard has averaged 11 points-per-game at 57 percent from the field and a much-improved 59 percent from three, making nearly half of his three-pointers this season in that stretch.
With his shot on, UCLA needs to get the ball in Drew’s hands and let him control the tempo in order to have the best possible chance to win the conference.