UCLA Basketball: Best-Case, Worst-Case Scenarios in Pac-12 Tournament
Predicting a team's potential performance in the Big Dance from the most recent past performance numbers in the "Little Dance"—which is the single-elimination conference tournament—is an uncertain business at best, and nothing like using the Daily Racing Form to pick the horses at the track.
The astute college basketball fan has seen too many examples of a mediocre team getting hot in its conference tournament, winning the league's automatic bid only to flame out over the first weekend of the NCAA tournament to put any real faith in the outcomes.
While, on the other side, there is a robust case history of conference champions or top-three teams being felled by the jump shots of unassuming assassins in the early rounds of their league tournament, only to make the run everyone thought they were capable of making when the eyes of a nation fell upon them in the maddest weeks of March.
This era of UCLA basketball under head coach Ben Howland has a good example of this in its own recent history. The top-seeded Bruins went down to Cal in the first round of the 2007 Pac-12 tournament after sweeping the Golden Bears during the regular season. It was a stunning, 76-69 overtime loss at the Staples Center in Los Angeles that seemed to foreshadow an evil March for a team that was 26-5 during the regular season.
But those Bruins won four in a row in the NCAA tournament and reached the Final Four in Atlanta before falling to eventual back-to-back national champion Florida.
Every season and every team has to be evaluated on different criteria, and this year's UCLA squad—being young and new to one another—has been exceptionally unpredictable. From that protean nature, though, plausible best- and worst-case scenarios in the Pac-12 tournament can be drawn.
The best scenarios are the ones that prepare UCLA to make a run in the NCAA tournament. The worst cases are the opposite; those that put the Bruins in a place where their confidence in themselves has been shaken and the prospects for advancement in the Big Dance have become perilous at best.
The Best-Case Scenario
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In a competitive game where winning championships is the ultimate goal, the best-case scenario for the Bruins in the Pac-12 tournament is easily distilled: Win all three games playing steady, consistent basketball while continuing their work to make their weaknesses—defense and rebounding—strong enough to keep them from getting beat.
In their first game, the Bruins are going to get either Stanford or Arizona State, a team they swept in the regular season, and a team they were drubbed by before beating in a payback game several weeks later, respectively.
If they win they will most likely get Arizona—the preseason conference favorite—and a team the Bruins beat twice during the regular season. It is very difficult to beat a good team a third time in one year.
If UCLA comes out of the first two rounds, it will more than likely be Cal or Oregon waiting in the championship game. UCLA split with Cal—and the second game in Berkeley was essentially a no-show for the Bruins, who went down 26 points before they had even started to really play. UCLA made the game competitive in the second half but lost, 76-63.
The game against Oregon, which they dropped in Westwood, was a great battle until the last three rounds of a 10-round fight, when the Ducks stepped into a series of haymakers on the offensive window and won comfortably, 76-67.
For the Bruins to really fill their sails with a tournament wind, they must play their game: uptempo, unselfish basketball with confident shooting from around the floor. They must show that hard-nosed mentality to grind on both ends of the floor, especially defensively, where they have surrendered so many rebounds and points to opponents throughout the season.
There also must be quick, precise execution of the defense, arriving on time to double the post, rotating off of hedges beyond the three-point line and committing to help-side defense. There also must be the intelligence to guard against the back-door offense and the weak-side three-point shooter, which have both burned the Bruins all year.
This must be part of an "all-in" mentality on defense generally: no leaking out, no abandoning the glass and playing through both the shot and rebound.
If these phases of the game are executed to the best of the team's ability, and the Bruins win three in a row to add a conference tournament crown to an outright regular-season championship, UCLA will head to the tournament with the highest seed it could possibly have. It will be in the best position to make a memorable run in the greatest single event in American sport.
The lone potential drawback to a strong run through the league tournament would be a complacency settling in after a job well done, followed by a letdown in the big tournament. This UCLA team won 10 games in a row during the regular season, and there is not a lot of reason to believe a three-game winning streak would satisfy anyone on the roster.
To play well and lose would not be the worst that could happen. To play well and lose bitterly would be a poignant lesson on the level of execution, urgency, desperation and all-out effort that's required to win in sudden-death basketball. Even those things sometimes aren't enough—sometimes it comes down to a simple matter of whose luck is better.
There is no doubt: The best-case scenario is a high-execution, high-energy tournament in which UCLA plays at least into the championship game, preferably winning it against a team that has put everything in the balance to try to knock them off their perch atop the league—and growing stronger from the intensity of the competition.
The Worst-Case Scenario
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It could be well-argued that the worst has already happened for UCLA with the alternate, Adidas uniforms they are apparently being compelled to wear for the Pac-12 tournament.
If the young Bruins bow out early, it will be easy to blame the sleeved jerseys and Zubaz shorts they have had foisted upon them as some sort of sick corporate joke on college basketball.
But for the actual basketball squad, the worst they could do for themselves would be to come out as a young group with a lot of doubters howling at them and play a bad game with low energy, poor execution and no urgency.
A bad game would be defined as a regression to all of the worst traits the Bruins have shown in various spots over the course of the season: lethargic, disinterested defense, soft interior play, abysmal rebounding on the defensive glass and selfishness on offense.
There are not many scenarios in the big conferences where an NCAA tournament lock must play well in its conference tournament in order to establish a strong baseline of confidence entering the Big Dance. This UCLA team finds itself in one of those rare situations where the conference tournament—and its performance in it—could realistically mean quite a bit.
UCLA—which gets 59 percent of its scoring from three freshmen—Shabazz Muhammad, 18 points, Jordan Adams, 15 points and Kyle Anderson, 10 points—is a very young team. Where it is not young—the Wear twins, juniors, Larry Drew II, a senior and Norman Powell, a sophomore—it is completely new to one another.
For a group that has never played together in a do-or-die scenario, the conference tournament under the bright lights in Las Vegas will be the only real trial run that approximates the intensity and format of the NCAA tournament before the team gets its first crack in the main event.
It constitutes then, a major opportunity for the Bruins to prove to themselves they can come together in a quick and forceful harmony to beat teams they should beat with only 40 minutes on the clock to do it. There are no second chances or rematches in college basketball's postseason.
If this group were to come out and start slowly, get blown out of the gym and never find their rhythm, it would be a frightening setback on the very eve of the biggest month of their basketball lives. It has happened to them before, against Cal in Berkeley on Feb. 14 and—shockingly—against Washington State in Pullman just last weekend.
If the Bruins went out in the opening round, or got blown out of a semifinal game, they would not only hurt their seed in the NCAA tournament; they would plant a seed of doubt in a worse spot, their collective psyche and overall confidence in one another.
Secondly, the negative part of the fanbase—a group of unknown size but expansive volume—would go apoplectic over the state of the program under coach Ben Howland, despite being regular-season conference champions.
The blast of negative energy pushing against them as they went into the NCAA tournament would either galvanize a mentally strong group or unhinge what was left of their continuity.
For this Bruins team, an early exit after a lackluster effort in the Pac-12 tournament would be by far the worst-case scenario.