The bigger they come, the more UCLA has to like its chances.
The Bruins head into the Pac-12 tournament as a conqueror of top seeds. They have gone a combined 3-0 against top-seeded Arizona and second-seeded USC after their 83-72 victory over the Trojans on Saturday.
“That bodes very, very well for us,” Bruins coach Steve Alford said.
Fourth-seeded UCLA could play both conference heavyweights again in a tournament it will open Thursday afternoon at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas against a lesser foe, which could trigger some uh-ohs among those who have closely followed the Bruins.
UCLA, 20-10 overall and 11-7 in the Pac-12, has gone 7-4 against the top seven teams in the conference but just 4-3 against the rest. The Bruins will play the winner of a Wednesday first-round game between fifth-seeded Stanford and 12th-seeded California.
Based on recent results, UCLA fans also might root for a semifinal matchup against Arizona followed by a championship showdown with USC. The Bruins could view a potential route in which they would face teams seeded Nos. 5, 1 and 2 as easy street.
“I mean, we’re 3-0 [against the top teams] in a tough conference,” point guard Aaron Holiday said after scorching the Trojans with 34 points, seven assists and five rebounds. “Obviously, we don’t get that much pub, but it’s a pretty tough conference and the top teams are obviously really good. So it always helps us — getting those wins — getting to the [NCAA] tournament and even in Vegas.”
UCLA’s chances of making the NCAA tournament appear much stronger than a week ago after the Bruins finished in a three-way tie with Utah and Stanford for third in the Pac-12. The Utes secured the No. 3 seeding for the conference tournament by virtue of having the best combined record against the other two teams.
CBS Sports analyst Jerry Palm projects the Bruins to receive a No. 11 seeding in the NCAA tournament in his latest bracket released Sunday morning.
UCLA’s triumph over the Trojans qualified as a coveted Quadrant 1 victory because it came on the road against a team with an RPI of 75 or better; the Bruins are now 3-7 in Quadrant 1 games, with their other victories coming on the road against Arizona and in New Orleans against Kentucky.
A theme has emerged in UCLA’s most impressive wins: The Bruins get significant contributions beyond their top trio of Holiday, center Thomas Welsh and forward Kris Wilkes. That was especially vital against USC on Saturday with freshman point guard Jaylen Hands sidelined by a right ankle sprain suffered in practice.
Enter Alex Olesinski, Prince Ali, Chris Smith and Alec Wulff.
Wulff, a seldom-used walk-on, came off the bench in the first half to make a three-pointer and log an assist in six productive minutes.
Ali continued to play strong defense despite making only one of nine shots and inadvertently head-butting Wilkes, forcing Wilkes to receive five stitches in his lip at halftime.
Smith scored all five of his points in the second half, including a dunk and a layup in transition.
Olesinski made a three-pointer as part of a decisive 12-2 run that transformed UCLA’s 61-60 deficit into a 72-63 lead.
They were precisely the kinds of plays UCLA will need again if the Bruins intend to leave Las Vegas as big winners, particularly with Hands’ availability unknown.
“We want to win it all,” Wilkes said. “We want to win that [Pac-12 tournament], we want to win the NCAA [title] of course.”
The road to what would be UCLA’s first deep NCAA tournament run since reaching the Final Four in 2008 will be rife with more chances to slay giants.