UCLA’s mantra heading into its game against USC on Saturday could be, “Win and we’re in … the Pac-12 Conference tournament quarterfinals!”
A victory over the Trojans at the Galen Center would assure the Bruins of securing the No. 3 or No. 4 seeding for the tournament that starts Wednesday at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas with games involving the teams that finish Nos. 5-12 in the conference standings. The winners of those games advance to play the top four teams in quarterfinals March 8.
UCLA, 19-10 overall and 10-7 in the Pac-12, is tied for third with Stanford and Utah.
Should the Bruins beat USC and finish in a two-way tie for third or fourth place with either Stanford, Utah, Oregon or Washington, they would hold the tiebreaker by virtue of a combined 3-0 record against conference-leading Arizona and the second-place Trojans.
“If we could take care of business on Saturday,” UCLA coach Steve Alford said Thursday, “it would get us to 11 wins [in conference play] and I think potentially push us into one of those spots” in the quarterfinals.
UCLA would secure no worse than a No. 4 seeding in all scenarios in which it finishes in a multi-team tie for third place based on its record in head-to-head competition among the tied teams as well as the Bruins’ record against top finishers Arizona and USC.
Avoiding the first round of the Pac-12 tournament would have meaningful benefits for UCLA beyond avoiding the need to win four games in four days to capture the Bruins’ first conference tournament title since 2014.
It would provide additional rest for a team with a rotation that goes only eight deep and relies heavily on point guard Aaron Holiday, whose average of 37.2 minutes a game leads the Pac-12.
“Winning four games in four days, that takes a lot out of you,” Holiday said, contemplating the possibility, “so if we can get that extra day off that would help us a lot.”
A loss to USC could drop UCLA to as low as a No. 6 seeding for the conference tournament. That would mean playing a first-round game and might necessitate the Bruins winning three or four games to qualify for the NCAA tournament given their status as a bubble team.
Can you dig it?
The fallout from the college basketball corruption scandal has already landed one top recruit in UCLA’s lap.
Shareef O’Neal, a highly touted center from Santa Monica Crossroads High and son of former Lakers star Shaquille O’Neal, committed to the Bruins this week after rescinding his verbal pledge to attend Arizona in the wake of new allegations facing the Wildcats.
ESPN recently reported that Arizona coach Sean Miller was heard on FBI wiretaps discussing a $100,000 payment to center Deandre Ayton, and assistant coach Emanuel “Book” Richardson was fired in January for his alleged role in a bribery scheme. Miller on Thursday strongly denied that any such conversation took place.
While the addition of O’Neal has boosted UCLA’s six-man recruiting class to a No. 3 national ranking according to 247sports.com, Alford suggested the college basketball scandal had no direct influence on his team’s recruiting.
“The scandal has nothing to do with how we go about our recruiting,” he said. “We recruit guys who are available.”