UCLA is running out of time with at least 2½ months and 20 games left in the season.
The Bruins have only a handful of chances left to significantly enhance their NCAA tournament chances starting with a showdown against No. 7 Kentucky on Saturday at the Smoothie King Center in New Orleans, part of the CBS Sports Classic.
“Obviously any time you can play a top-10, top-15 team,” UCLA coach Steve Alford said Thursday, “that's a big resume game.”
The Wildcats (9-1) are one of only three remaining nationally ranked teams on UCLA’s schedule. The Bruins (8-3) also will play No. 3 Arizona State and No. 18 Arizona, but they’ll face those Pac-12 Conference rivals only once each this season because of the conference’s unbalanced schedule.
That means UCLA must capitalize on its remaining handful of opportunities for meaningful victories or risk ending its season in the Pac-12 tournament. The Bruins had an RPI of 95 on Thursday, two days after an 85-82 victory over South Dakota that represented their first triumph over a team that currently has a winning record.
ESPN analyst Joe Lunardi listed UCLA among his “First Four Out” of the NCAA tournament.
UCLA used an upset of then-No. 1 Kentucky last season at Rupp Arena in Lexington to vault into the No. 2 spot in the Associated Press poll. The Bruins would probably settle for making Lunardi’s “Last Four In” should they manage to beat the Wildcats on Saturday.
Playing Kentucky has become a staple of the Bruins’ schedule; this will be the teams’ fifth meeting in the last four seasons. Most of the games have been memorable, though UCLA would prefer to forget the December 2014 matchup at the United Center in Chicago, where the Wildcats scored the game’s first 24 points and held a 41-7 halftime lead on the way to an 83-44 blowout.
The Bruins then upset top-ranked Kentucky in each of the next two seasons before falling to the Wildcats in an NCAA tournament regional semifinal last March in Memphis.
“It’s special,” Bruins center Thomas Welsh said of the matchup. “It’s UCLA versus Kentucky, it’s what college basketball is all about. So, I mean, we’re just really excited, I know they’re going to be fired up as well so it’s going to be a blast, we’re just going to work hard, play hard and have a good time out there.”