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UCLA heads to Arizona chasing the Pac-12 lead and trying to avoid the NCAA tournament bubble

UCLA heads to Arizona chasing the Pac-12 lead and trying to avoid the NCAA tournament bubble
UCLA guard Jaylen Hands, left, celebrates with coach Steve Alford following a win over USC on Feb. 3. (Michael Owen Baker / Associated Press)

UCLA is back in the running for the Pac-12 Conference title. The Bruins also remain on the NCAA tournament bubble.

Those two seemingly incompatible facts are not mutually exclusive.

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A relatively weak Pac-12 has left UCLA needing to beat No. 13 Arizona on Thursday night at the McKale Center to not only sustain its conference title hopes but bolster its case for a second consecutive appearance in the NCAA tournament.

Opinions differ on whether the Bruins have already done enough to deserve an at-large bid. ESPN's Joe Lunardi is among a handful of analysts who have listed UCLA among their "First Four Out." CBS Sports' Jerry Palm has the Bruins bound for a play-in game as one of the last four teams to qualify.

UCLA, 16-7 overall and 7-4 in the Pac-12, apparently has some work to do not only because of its own shortcomings but those of its conference brethren. The Pac-12 features only one ranked team in the Wildcats and is currently projected to receive five or fewer NCAA tournament bids.

The Pac-12 sits last among the six major conferences in the Sagarin Ratings after its teams compiled a losing record against other major conference counterparts as well as nationally ranked opponents.

UCLA defeated then-No. 7 Kentucky in December, but the Wildcats since have slipped to No. 24. The Bruins' other quality victories have come against Washington (No. 35 RPI), USC (No. 45) and Utah (No. 57), leaving them in need of a few more over the next month.

The significance of UCLA's game against Arizona (19-5, 9-2) is magnified because it will be the only regular-season game between the teams as part of the Pac-12's imbalanced schedule. The same goes for UCLA's game Saturday against Arizona State (17-6, 5-6), which has a losing Pac-12 record but an RPI of 44 on the strength of having gone 12-0 in nonconference play.

Bruins coach Steve Alford suggested this week that the narrative of a weak Pac-12 was a bit misleading because the conference's missteps in nonconference play were largely a result of injuries and young teams just starting to find their way.

"Obviously, as a conference across the league, we didn't get the wins in nonconference that we normally have," Alford said. "That will kind of create the narrative, right or wrong. … But I think the league was just very young and inexperienced in the nonconference, and then once league play started, teams have gotten healthy."

A victory over Arizona would extend UCLA's three-game winning streak and leave the Bruins only one game out of first place in the Pac-12. UCLA's recent surge has been sparked by improved ball movement and increased activity on defense. The trends must continue if the Bruins have any hope of going undefeated in February for a second consecutive season.

"That's been our focal point all this week: We gotta keep growing; we gotta keep getting better," Alford said.

The Bruins muffled the din inside the McKale Center last season during a 77-72 victory, leaving the Wildcats in the awkward spot of holding their senior day festivities after a defeat. Of course, that UCLA team also had star freshmen Lonzo Ball and TJ Leaf in addition to seniors Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton.

These Bruins include four rotation players who will be playing their first meaningful minutes in what's widely considered the most raucous environment in the Pac-12.

"You can try to explain it the best you can by talking to them," UCLA senior center Thomas Welsh said of his younger teammates, "but it's one of those things that you really have to experience to understand what it is."

The Bruins wilted earlier this season in the final minutes of road losses to Michigan and Stanford, lessons they hope will lead to better results. Taking down Arizona on a court where the Wildcats are 12-0 this season would qualify.

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It also keep UCLA relevant in discussions about the Pac-12 title and the NCAA tournament.

"Every game from here on out is pretty big," forward Kris Wilkes said. "I feel like we need to win every game."

::

UP NEXT

AT ARIZONA

When: 7 p.m. PST.

Where: McKale Center, Tucson.

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

Update: The Wildcats are happy to return home, where they are the only Pac-12 Conference team to remain unbeaten, after suffering a 78-75 setback against Washington in Seattle in which they lost on Dominic Green's three-pointer while falling out of bounds. Arizona 7-footers Deandre Ayton and Dusan Ristic might present the most formidable front line UCLA faces all season. Ayton, the possible top pick in the NBA draft, averages 19.7 points and 10.8 rebounds per game, while Ristic adds averages of 11.7 points and 6.9 rebounds. But Wildcats coach Sean Miller recently said this might be the worst defensive team he's had in 14 years as a head coach after Arizona dropped to No. 106 nationally in defensive efficiency, according to the metrics of Ken Pomeroy. The Wildcats are giving up 71.8 points per game, ranking fourth in the Pac-12.

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