UCLA appears to be in a precarious spot heading into its final two games before the Pac-12 Conference basketball tournament.
The Bruins have fallen into a tie for third place in the conference standings after losing to Utah on Thursday. They are on the edge of securing an NCAA tournament berth, according to most projections. Angst is bubbling over on fan message boards.
In other words, UCLA might be on the verge of another pleasant surprise Sunday afternoon against Colorado at the Coors Events Center given the way this season has unfolded.
The Bruins were plodding along unremarkably during nonconference play … before giving then-No. 7 Kentucky a case of the bluegrass blues with a UCLA upset victory.
The Bruins had lost three consecutive conference games in January and appeared on the verge of a total collapse … before rolling up four consecutive victories to move back into Pac-12 title contention.
The Bruins looked like they might go an entire season without any road wins of note … before thrashing Arizona in Tucson to hand the Wildcats their first home loss in almost a year.
Just when you think UCLA might be finished, the Bruins (19-9 overall, 10-6 Pac-12) have repeatedly delivered proof-of-life results. They are seeking another breakthrough Sunday against the Buffaloes (15-13, 7-9), who beat the Bruins last month at Pauley Pavilion for their only road victory of the season.
Colorado is far more formidable at home, where it has gone 11-3 while becoming one of only two Pac-12 teams (Washington was the other) to sweep the Arizona schools over a weekend this season. The Buffaloes also figure to be playing with emotion against the Bruins, considering it is Colorado’s final home game of the season.
“It’s senior day for them and they’ve already beaten us,” UCLA coach Steve Alford said of the Buffaloes on Thursday after his team lost to Utah, “so it’s not an easy situation and we have to figure out how to go and get a win.”
The Bruins’ 68-59 setback against Colorado in January was easily their most baffling of the season. UCLA came out flat on its home court, fell behind by 17 points and struggled to deal with the traps the Buffaloes continually used on point guard Aaron Holiday, who had six turnovers and made only four of 13 shots.
UCLA also inexplicably went away from Thomas Welsh in the final minutes after the 7-foot center had scored 10 consecutive points to pull the Bruins to within 55-51 with 5:14 left. Welsh did not take another shot.
The loss represented the fewest points the Bruins have scored all season and knocked them out of first place in the Pac-12. They haven’t returned and now are fighting just to get into the NCAA tournament. While CBS Sports analyst Jerry Palm lists UCLA among the teams bound for a play-in game in his latest projections, ESPN’s Joe Lunardi has pegged the Bruins as one of his “First Four Out” of the tournament.
The Bruins seem to understand the urgency of their situation.
“Late February, they’re all kind of must-win [games] more or less,” Welsh said Thursday. “This time of year, you want to be clicking in every way, so winning proves that and helps resumes and helps everything moving forward. We have these two regular-season games [left] and want to make sure we make the most of them.”
When: Sunday, 1 p.m. PST.
Where: Coors Events Center, Boulder, Colo.
On the air: TV: ESPNU; Radio: 570.
Update: Colorado went scoreless for nearly 7½ minutes in the second half Wednesday during its 75-64 loss to USC, which represented the Buffaloes’ third consecutive defeat. Colorado’s George King, who scored 26 points during the Buffaloes’ 68-59 victory over UCLA in January, missed all six of his shots against the Trojans and finished with four points thanks to his free throws. King is among the four seniors who will be honored before Colorado’s final home game of the season.
Follow Ben Bolch on Twitter @latbbolch