UCLA’s chances of making the NCAA tournament remain unclear after an up-and-down trip to Arizona
The top college basketball teams in the nation tuned in Sunday to find out if they were projected to receive one of the top four seedings in the NCAA tournament as part of a sneak peek at the brackets.
Meanwhile, UCLA fans continued to monitor a less coveted foursome: the last four teams predicted to make the tournament.
The Bruins remained on the precipice of tournament exclusion even after a victory over No. 13 Arizona on Thursday because they followed it with a loss to Arizona State two days later.
CBS Sports analyst Jerry Palm’s latest projections listed UCLA with a No. 10 seeding, one typically given to teams that are among the last at-large entries in the 68-team field. On the plus side, the Bruins were spared the indignity of being listed as among the “Last Four In,” a designation that comes with a dreaded play-in game.
But UCLA is hardly a lock for a second consecutive tournament appearance with five games left in the regular season. The Bruins, 17-8 overall and 8-5 in the Pac-12 Conference, are tied with USC for second place in the jumbled conference standings while holding the tiebreaker, but they’re closer to sixth than to first. UCLA trails first-place Arizona by two games but leads four teams tied for sixth by only one game.
“I like where we’re at,” UCLA coach Steve Alford said Saturday after his team’s 88-79 loss to Arizona State. “We got a pivotal road win on this trip. If we get the two home wins next week, then we put ourselves in a really good situation with still three more opportunities on the road to win, so I like where we’re at but we obviously are like a lot of teams — we’ve got a lot of work to do.”
Three of UCLA’s five games before the Pac-12 tournament are on the road, making games against Oregon State and Oregon this week at Pauley Pavilion must-win situations given the Bruins’ road results under Alford. UCLA has only swept three conference trips during Alford’s five seasons, all coming last season with a loaded roster featuring Lonzo Ball and TJ Leaf.
These Bruins often reflect the play of point guard Aaron Holiday, whose struggles before a late scoring outburst Saturday against Arizona State left his team in a bind. UCLA also inexplicably abandoned its early success using an inside-out approach, with freshmen Jaylen Hands and Kris Wilkes often forcing jumpers that took the team out of its offensive flow.
A lack of ball movement has plagued UCLA for pockets of the season, but that’s hardly been the team’s biggest issue. The Bruins’ inability to defend consistently and their tendency to let offensive struggles dictate their defensive intensity have been ongoing concerns.
Just check the numbers. If UCLA isn’t making a healthy chunk of its three-pointers, it usually loses. The Bruins are making 41.4% of their shots from beyond the arc in wins as opposed to 28% in losses.
That’s what can happen when a team is ranked No. 110 nationally in defensive efficiency according to the metrics of Ken Pomeroy. It’s the second time in three seasons that UCLA’s defense has ranked outside the top 100 in that category. The last time it happened, during the 2015-16 season, Alford pledged in a letter to fans that “this can never happen again.”
Equally confounding is the success UCLA has achieved this season while playing with focus and intensity, as it did during victories over nationally ranked Kentucky and Arizona. Fans routinely wonder on message boards what kind of season the Bruins might be having if they brought that kind of effort every game.
UCLA’s uneven results have left it with an RPI of 53, immediately behind New Mexico State, Louisiana and Loyola Chicago. The Bruins can only hope the balance of their season isn’t a march toward madness.
“I feel good,” Holiday said when asked about the Bruins’ NCAA tournament chances. “I think we’re going to get it done. We’re a great team. We’ve played together, figured out we’re a great team. So I think we’re going to get it done.”
Follow Ben Bolch on Twitter @latbbolch
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