Bruins on a mission against BYU
If UCLA doesn’t do something about its RPI, its NCAA tournament hopes might as well RIP.
The Bruins’ Ratings Percentage Index of 182, as formulated by independent expert Jerry Palm, is worse than the ratings of North Carolina Central (179), Texas A&M Corpus Christi (163) and Indiana-Purdue Fort Wayne (127), teams hardly expected to generate any March Madness.
That’s why UCLA’s game against Brigham Young on Saturday at the Honda Center in the Wooden Classic is a last hurrah of sorts. The No. 16 Cougars are the final remaining ranked team — as of now —on the Bruins’ schedule, representing a rare chance to score major quality points with the NCAA tournament selection committee.
“Everybody can feel the hype around it and all the pressure,” UCLA junior guard Malcolm Lee said. “It’s just another opportunity for us to try to make a statement.”
The Bruins (5-4) sent mixed messages in their two previous games against ranked teams. They looked overmatched during a 12-point loss to then-No. 7 Villanova, but UCLA might have beaten then-No. 4 Kansas had it not been for a controversial last-second call that allowed the Jayhawks to escape with a one-point victory.
UCLA Coach Ben Howland doesn’t think his team is playing its last ranked opponent, noting that Pacific 10 Conference rival Washington was a top-25-caliber team hurt by a pair of losses to marquee opponents in the Maui Invitational. The Huskies could very well be back in the rankings by the time the Bruins play them Dec. 31.
But playing in the Pac-10 appears to be a hindrance to UCLA; the conference has no ranked teams and is currently ninth in conference RPI, behind the Mountain West and Colonial Athletic Assn. That means the Bruins badly need victories against BYU and St. John’s in February to bolster their postseason hopes.
The Cougars (10-0), who move from the Mountain West to the West Coast Conference next season, have already mauled one Pac-10 team, handing Arizona a 22-point loss last week in Salt Lake City.
“Their record says it all,” UCLA sophomore forward Tyler Honeycutt said. “They’re undefeated and there’s a reason why they are in the top 25 in the country.”
BYU has a preseason All-American in Jimmer Fredette, but the team also has tremendous balance. Six players average between 11.4 and 6.3 points, making it difficult to game plan against one or two stars.
“They’re a matchup nightmare,” Howland said.
Fredette is widely considered the best BYU player since Danny Ainge. The senior guard averages 23.7 points and he dropped 49 on Arizona last December during another rout of the Wildcats.
Howland marveled at Fredette’s ability to create space with quick spins and score over defenders with high-arcing shots. The coach said Lee, as the Bruins’ best perimeter defender, will initially guard Fredette, though junior guard Lazeric Jones will also draw that assignment at times.
Howland stressed the difference in life experience between the Bruins and Cougars after his team beat UC Davis on Monday, saying, “It will be a real challenge playing against men that are married with kids.” In fact, six Cougars are married with children.
BYU possesses a slight advantage in terms of age; the average Cougar is 21.4 years old while the average Bruin is 19.7, in large part because eight BYU players have served two-year Mormon missions.
Howland pleaded with UCLA fans to show up the Honda Center, saying there were “more Mormons in Orange County than in the state of Utah. … We have to come out and get our fans to support us so we’re not playing a road game.”
Cougars Coach Dave Rose on Friday was predictably complimentary of the Bruins on the eve of the game, calling them “a very, very talented group that’s going to be a really, really good team once they get all their pieces figured out.”
As far as UCLA’s postseason hopes go, it might be now or never.