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Bruins are confident heading into Pac-12 tournament, but significant challenges await

Bruins are confident heading into Pac-12 tournament, but significant challenges await
Coach Steve Alford and the Bruins will be trying to beat Kentucky for the second time this season. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

UCLA does not plan to use either of its allotted practice times inside T-Mobile Arena before the Pac-12 Conference tournament. The first scheduled session was Wednesday morning, before the Bruins even arrive in town, and the second was Thursday morning, 11 hours before their tipoff in the quarterfinal round.

No thanks, UCLA Coach Steve Alford said.

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"We're not going to get our guys up at 8:30 to go for a 20-, 25-minute shoot," Alford said. "We'll just get that normal 27-minute warmup" before the game.

Some might say the third-ranked Bruins shouldn't bother anyway. It doesn't seem like they need the extra work.

UCLA (28-3) will carry a nine-game winning streak into the tournament, the longest current stretch of success among conference teams. Included in that run were victories over Arizona and Oregon, the teams that finished above the Bruins in the Pac-12 standings.

Another factor potentially tilting in UCLA's favor is its familiarity with the new home of the tournament. The Bruins are the only Pac-12 team to have played there, in December, when they defeated Ohio State as part of the CBS Sports Classic.

Swagger also apparently won't be an issue heading into their tournament opener against sixth-seeded USC, which held off Washington, 78-73, Wednesday night.

"I haven't been this confident going into a Pac-12 tournament in the postseason, I think, in my career," senior UCLA shooting guard Bryce Alford said. "I've always been a confident guy and confident in my guys, but this year there's just something about us that I feel like we're built for this kind of stuff."

UCLA's toughest challenge, at least on its first day, might be preparation. The Bruins wouldn't know the identity of their opponent until players' bedtime Wednesday. Steve Alford said he would watch USC play Washington from the team hotel, with three of his assistants scouting the game in person.

"It's not so much about what the other team's doing as much as it is what you're doing," Steve Alford said, "because the prep is so quick."

The Bruins enjoyed a 32-point romp over the Trojans last month, ending a four-game losing streak against USC.

But the road to UCLA's first Pac-12 tournament title since 2014 might be as potholed as any three-game stretch it would face in the NCAA tournament, considering No. 7 Arizona would probably await in a semifinal and No. 5 Oregon is heavily favored to reach the championship game.

"We could potentially be playing three [NCAA] tournament teams," Bryce Alford said.

That would also open the possibility of the Bruins playing themselves into a No. 1 seeding in the NCAA tournament should they go 3-0. As they enter Pac-12 tournament play, they are widely projected to receive either a No. 2 or a No. 3 seeding.

Their stock unquestionably on the rise, Bruins players are not the only ones who like their chances to prevail over their conference brethren.

"There's no reason why you wouldn't," said Mike Montgomery, the former Stanford and California coach who is an analyst for the Pac-12 Networks. "They don't have very many holes. They've got depth, they've got a couple of starters [coming] off the bench."

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Tournament longevity for UCLA might require a future that strongly resembles its present.

"We'll just talk to the guys about what we've got to do," Steve Alford said, "and it's about being who we are."

Twitter: @latbbolch

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