With a win over Cal on Sunday, UCLA carved its way to a tie for second place with the Golden Bears in the Pac-12 standings with a 5-2 record.
As encouraging as a second-place slot in the conference is, UCLA’s ultimate goal is to reach the top spot in the conference and win back-to-back regular-season Pac-12 titles.
However, in order to achieve that goal, the Bruins will have to supplant Arizona, which isn’t merely atop the conference with a spotless 7-0 record but is also the No. 1 team in the nation with an undefeated 20-0 record.
In addition, the Bruins have already missed out on their opportunity to stain Arizona’s pristine record when they lost to the Wildcats at home, 79-75, in a hard-fought but unfruitful battle.
If UCLA would have pulled off a victory over Arizona, it would have at least been tied for first place with the Wildcats with identical 6-1 records. However, that ship has set sail and won’t return, as the two teams won’t meet again in the regular season.
Additionally, Arizona is an outstanding team that could quite possibly survive the remainder of the conference season without losing more than two games, which would entail a perfect performance from UCLA in its remaining 11 conference games to tie Arizona for the regular-season title.
As talented of a group of players as UCLA has, it would be ludicrous to predict the Bruins to close out their conference schedule without a loss. This team plays well together, but it has yet to develop the consistency that would warrant such a lofty prediction.
With the odds stacked against them, should the Bruins then discard their hopes of winning the Pac-12 and securing a good spot in the NCAA tournament and settle for a second- or third-place finish in the conference?
As dominant as Arizona has been through 20 games, only four of those games have been true road games. The Wildcats beat San Diego State and Michigan on the road in nonconference play, but the conference road circuit will be a different beast for Arizona to slay.
Arizona has defeated both UCLA and USC in its first Pac-12 road trip, but the Wildcats haven’t played a game outside of Tucson in two weeks and, like UCLA, will play five of their next seven games on the road.
“Going on the road is hard, but when you’re No. 1 going on the road, I can make the case that it might be even harder,” Sean Miller said after Arizona improved to 20-0 by defeating Utah on Sunday.
With teams like Stanford, Cal and Colorado determined to ascend the standings after losing a few key games, Arizona is not only destined to shake its perfect record but will also likely drop at least a pair of games on its upcoming road trip.
Barring injury to Nick Johnson or Aaron Gordon, the Wildcats should remain undefeated on their home court, as only one of their four opponents in the remaining home games is in the conference’s upper-third (Cal).
However, Arizona won’t finish the season undefeated. Based on their remaining schedule, the Wildcats will likely lose three games (at Cal, at Utah, and at Colorado/at Oregon) or less, which would leave their conference record at 15-3 or better when the dust settles.
If that’s indeed the way it plays out, the 5-2 Bruins have their work cut out for them.
"Getting to 5-2 is going to be big because now five of our next seven are on the road," Steve Alford said after Sunday’s game. "We kind of flip the schedule, and that's not easy."
UCLA should be able to emerge victorious from its upcoming road trip against the Oregon schools and USC, but the road will present its share of obstacles for the Bruins further down the way.
For its final two road trips, UCLA will take on the Bay Area schools and then the Washington schools, trips that could easily result in a pair of collective losses for the Bruins (Cal and Washington).
Those losses alone would strike UCLA from contention for first place.
Conjecture won’t determine UCLA’s fate, but realistically, the Bruins won’t notch their second consecutive regular-season Pac-12 title. Arizona’s simply too dominant, and UCLA doesn’t have the consistency, particularly in its frontcourt, that it needs to win nine or 10 of its remaining 11 conference games.
Therefore, UCLA will have to bet on a second-place finish and a good run in the Pac-12 tournament to secure a decent seed in the NCAA tournament.
A Pac-12 tournament championship, which would likely include UCLA knocking off Arizona, would do far more for the team than a regular-season title.
See: last season.