UCLA can make a case for NCAA tournament against No. 7 Arizona

UCLA can make a major statement for tournament play with a road win over No. 7 Arizona

Perhaps the biggest game of the season looms for the UCLA men's basketball team Saturday.

A win over No. 7 Arizona would vault the Bruins into a safer position for the NCAA tournament. A loss would further plunge them into uncertainty.

Given all that, UCLA Coach Steve Alford was asked Friday: Is the game against the Wildcats a must-win?

"We've felt like that over the past three weeks," Alford said. "We had a tough December, and then obviously having a slow start to league play, we've felt that all along."

After the game at Arizona, UCLA will have three home games and the Pac-12 tournament to impress the selection committee. The Bruins can make a case without a win over the Wildcats: They are ranked 45th in the RPI and 43rd in basketball statistician Ken Pomeroy's rankings.

But one major flaw in the Bruins' resume is their performance on the road, where they have wilted.

In the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament in November, UCLA let Oklahoma pull away late. The next night, North Carolina won in a rout.

An embarrassment against Kentucky in Chicago, where the Wildcats scored the first 24 points of the game, took weeks to overcome. Three games later, UCLA lost another lopsided game, 71-39, at Utah.

That setback, though, marked a turning point. The Bruins won eight of their next 11 games, including at home against Utah and twice against Stanford.

Alford said his team has changed since losing five in a row in December and January. The young players who looked bewildered and intimidated against North Carolina and Kentucky have matured.

"We're a much better basketball team than we were when we played Carolina," Alford said. "We're a much better basketball team than when we played Kentucky. And that's what we're really looking for with this team."

The Bruins — 2-7 in road games — arrived in Tucson on Thursday to prepare to play in front of what is expected to be a sold-out crowd at the McKale Center.

In the days leading to the game, coaches have tried to illustrate that there has been more consistency on the road. Alford said his club played well on a trip to play Stanford and California, despite splitting the pair. A trip to Oregon was affected by Tony Parker's injury. Alford also took away positives from Wednesday's disappointing 68-66 loss at Arizona State.

Afterward, though, frustration showed on the face of senior guard Norman Powell, whose final games could be numbered.

"Now," Powell said before walking to the team bus, "we have to go into Tucson and try and steal one."

UCLA AT NO. 7 ARIZONA

When: 6 PST Saturday

Where: McKale Center, Tucson.

On the air: TV: ESPN; Radio: 570.

Records: UCLA 16-11, 8-6 in Pac-12. Arizona 23-3, 11-2.

Update: After losing to Arizona State on Wednesday, the Bruins need a win to bolster their NCAA tournament hopes, but the Wildcats haven't lost at home all season. Last season, Arizona beat UCLA at Pauley Pavilion, but the Bruins got revenge in Las Vegas on the way to claiming the Pac-12 tournament title. The last time UCLA played at the McKale Center, in 2013, the Bruins won by 11 points. The Wildcats are tied with Utah for first place in the Pac-12 and are dangerous on both sides of the ball. They are second in scoring in the conference (76.3 a game) and third in scoring defense (59.2). Freshman Stanley Johnson, from Mater Dei High, leads the team in scoring and rebounding.

zach.helfand@latimes.com

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