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UCLA's best way to enhance its NCAA tournament chances is simple: win games

UCLA could obsess over team sheets and quadrants as it tries to strengthen its case for NCAA tournament inclusion, or it could take the approach preferred by freshman forward Kris Wilkes.

"If we win all our games," Wilkes said, "then we'll definitely be in there."

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That's true, but some of those wins might be more valuable than others. The NCAA tournament selection committee is placing a greater value on success achieved on the road and at neutral sites this season, which provides the Bruins with multiple opportunities to enhance their standing over the next three weeks.

UCLA, 19-8 overall and 10-5 in the Pac-12 Conference, will play at Utah on Thursday and at Colorado on Sunday before closing the regular season at USC on March 3. The Bruins will then play in the Pac-12 tournament the following week on a neutral court at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.

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All three of UCLA's remaining road games are currently in Quadrant 1, the most prized portion of a team's body of work. Quadrant 1 games are considered those that come at home against a team with an RPI of 1-30, at a neutral site against a team that has an RPI of 1-50 or on the road against a team that has an RPI of 1-75.

As of Wednesday, Utah's RPI was 49, Colorado's was 74 and USC's was 42. The final categorization of quadrants will come on the day teams are selected for the NCAA tournament, meaning that a win over Colorado could put UCLA in Quadrant 2 should the Buffaloes' RPI fall below 75.

UCLA has gone 2-4 in Quadrant 1 games so far this season, with a neutral-site win over Kentucky and a road win over Arizona. The Bruins' losses in the top quadrant came at home against Cincinnati, at a neutral site against Creighton and on the road against Arizona State and Michigan.

UCLA has gone 3-3 in Quadrant 2 games, 7-1 in Quadrant 3 games and 7-0 in Quadrant 4 games. Essentially, that means the Bruins have only one bad loss as far as the NCAA tournament selection committee is concerned — on the road against Oregon State, which has an RPI of 170.

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UCLA coach Steve Alford said he wasn't concerned with the nuances of what his team, which has an RPI of 47, needed to do bolster its chances of receiving one of the 36 at-large entries to the NCAA tournament.

"What do we do, weigh one game more than the others?" Alford asked. "Then you win one game and lose three in a row. As an athlete and as a coach, it's about staying in the moment and whenever your next opportunity is, put everything into that and then make the most out of it before you move to the next one."

Alford did acknowledge the importance of trying to finish in the top four of the Pac-12 standings, which would give the Bruins a bye into the quarterfinals of the conference tournament. Utah (17-9, 9-6) currently resides in fourth place, only one game behind the Bruins.

UCLA defeated Utah and Colorado on the road last season, giving Alford the first weekend road sweep of his first four seasons with the Bruins. A repeat sweep of the mountain schools might be more difficult. Utah has won four consecutive games and is 10-2 at home; Colorado defeated the Bruins at Pauley Pavilion in January and is 11-2 at home, with wins over then-nationally ranked Arizona State and Arizona.

Meanwhile, the Bruins have gone 2-5 on the road, giving them reason to worry more about the quantity than the quality of their triumphs in the coming weeks.

"It's just winning games, really," center Thomas Welsh said when asked about UCLA polishing its resume for the NCAA tournament. "I mean, that's kind of the remedy that solves everything."

UCLA UP NEXT

AT UTAH

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When: Thursday, 6 p.m. PST.

Where: Huntsman Center, Salt Lake City.

On the air: TV: ESPN; Radio: 1150.

Update: UCLA coach Steve Alford said the Utes are using a lot more zone defense than they did when they struggled for most of an 83-64 loss to the Bruins at Pauley Pavilion in January. Utah freshman forward Donnie Tillman is back after missing that game with a foot injury, but the status of sophomore forward Jayce Johnson and junior guard Sedrick Barefield remains unclear. Johnson did not play during the Utes' 77-70 victory over Washington State on Saturday because of a foot injury, and Barefield played only four minutes after experiencing discomfort in his ribs during pregame warmups. Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak would not discuss the injuries during his weekly news conference on Tuesday. Barefield is the team's third-leading scorer, averaging 11.2 points per game, and Johnson ranks second on the team in rebounds with 5.9 per game.

Follow Ben Bolch on Twitter @latbbolch

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