With NCAA tournament nearing, UCLA already in survive-and-advance mode
It’s the phrase that sparked a remarkable run one year ago, saving a season and making UCLA one of the top stories in college basketball.
Listen closely and you’ll hear it again, back to bolster the Bruins for another late-season push.
“Each game for us,” guard Jaime Jaquez Jr. said Thursday night, “is basically playing in a tournament.”
The Bruins’ one-game tournament approach of playing with wild abandon has resulted in consecutive victories, the start of what they hope will be something special. A year ago, they won 11 of 14 games to put themselves in position for an NCAA tournament that was never played because of the emerging COVID-19 pandemic.
The tournament is scheduled for next month at a handful of sites in Indiana, and UCLA wants to make sure it’s part of the fun. The Bruins (15-5 overall, 11-3 Pac-12 Conference) surely would be involved if invitations went out before they faced Arizona State (7-10, 4-7) on Saturday at Pauley Pavilion, but another loss or two in their final four regular-season games could put them squarely on the bubble.
UCLA was projected as a No. 9 seed in ESPN analyst Joe Lunardi’s latest bracket — conjecturally in for the moment but with plenty of work ahead to ensure selection.
Amari Bailey verbally committed to UCLA, returning to the school he had originally picked before decommitting when the previous coaching staff was fired.
Being one game behind first-place USC in the Pac-12 doesn’t matter because the NCAA tournament selection committee doesn’t consider conference standings, as the Trojans well know from being left out when they finished second in the 2017-18 season.
UCLA’s No. 39 ranking in the NCAA Evaluation Tool, or NET, is solid but doesn’t guarantee anything. North Carolina State (NET ranking of No. 33) and Texas (No. 38) were both left out of the NCAA tournament in 2019 with a better standing in one of the metrics that helps the selection committee pick and seed teams.
Victories over Arizona on the road and Colorado at home qualify as the Bruins’ only Quadrant 1 wins. Those are the most eye-catching for NCAA tournament selection purposes because they can come only against teams with a NET ranking of 1 to 15 at home, 1 to 50 at a neutral site or 1 to 75 on the road.
UCLA can add to its tally of Quad 1 wins with victories on the road against Colorado (NET ranking of No. 21) on Feb. 27 and at home against USC (No. 14) on March 6.
But there’s also the possibility of a bad loss. Falling to Arizona State (No. 120) at home would qualify as the Bruins’ first Quad 3 defeat of the season after starting 7-0 in that category.
“These are must-win games,” Jaquez said after scoring a career-high 25 points during UCLA’s 74-60 victory over Arizona. “Every game from this point forward is a must win.”
UCLA coach Mick Cronin has spent part of the last week lobbying for more Pac-12 respect, noting that its teams were hurt by early season travel issues that forced most nonconference games to be played east of the Mississippi River.
“You know, don’t get me started,” Cronin said. “The Pac-12 is being extremely disrespected in national polls and national rankings, and you know what’s going on with COVID this year. So we’re trying to make sure we get to March Madness.”
Part of that could entail finishing unbeaten at home, where the Bruins are 10-0 this season and have won their last 17 games going back to January 2020.
In his first season at UCLA after transferring from Kentucky, Johnny Juzang has become the Bruins’ leading scorer at 14.2 points a game.
“I tell my team real programs, great programs, you know, they go undefeated at home,” said Cronin, whose Cincinnati teams once won 39 consecutive home games. “That’s why you’re making tournaments every year.”
UCLA showed against the Wildcats that it is especially formidable when getting contributions from almost everybody on the floor.
“Everyone was sharing the ball, passing, playing great defense,” Jaquez said after the Bruins held the Wildcats to 29 points in the second half.
Those words also have a familiar ring, sounding like a throwback to happier times before the basketball world came to a halt.
VS. ARIZONA STATE
When: Saturday, 7 p.m.
Where: Pauley Pavilion.
On the air: TV: ESPN2; Radio: 570.
Update: The Bruins must find a way to limit Arizona State guard Remy Martin, whose 30 points kept the Sun Devils competitive in an 89-71 loss to USC on Thursday. Sun Devils star freshmen Marcus Bagley and Josh Christopher did not play against the Trojans because of injuries but made the trip to Los Angeles and could return depending on how they fared in practice Friday.
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