Jalen Hill stood in a corridor inside the Huntsman Center, horns blaring in the background. Another slow start for UCLA had ended in another road loss, and now the Bruins just wanted to pack their things and head home.
As Utah reveled in a noisy sendoff for its seniors not far from where Hill stood Saturday evening, the UCLA forward contemplated the balance of a season that might have only one game left in the Pac-12 Conference tournament.
Hill envisioned leaving Las Vegas with more than a cameo appearance along the Strip.
“I believe that we’re going to win the whole thing,” Hill said. “There’s no doubt in my mind.”
If a miracle starts with a belief, then the Bruins might be onto something.
Of course, seventh-seeded UCLA (16-15 overall, 9-9 Pac-12) will need more than faith if it intends to stick around beyond its first-round game Wednesday evening at T-Mobile Arena against 10th-seeded Stanford (15-15, 8-10).
There is one common thread between those Buffaloes and these Bruins: both were playing in a historically bad Pac-12. The conference sent just two teams to the NCAA tournament after Colorado received the automatic bid in 2012, which might be one more than it sends next week.
Only conference regular-season champion Washington seems assured of getting invited to the NCAA tournament, though the Huskies don’t want to tempt fate after winning the regular season title in 2012 and being left home thanks to a loss in the quarterfinals of the Pac-12 tournament.
UCLA has won four consecutive games only once this season, but it came over a span of nearly two weeks against Purdue Fort Wayne, Long Beach State, St. Francis and Presbyterian. To pull off the biggest Las Vegas heist since “Ocean’s Eleven,” UCLA could have to beat Stanford, second-seeded Arizona State, third-seeded Utah and top-seeded Washington, teams that have gone a combined 5-1 against the Bruins this season.
“If we’re fortunate enough to keep winning, then by the end of the week, we could be a tired team,” UCLA interim coach Murry Bartow said Tuesday. “You know, it’s hard to play four games in four days, but my gosh, if you get that far, you’ve got a lot of adrenaline pumping.”
A championship would also involve the Bruins winning more games away from their home court than they have all season; they are 0-3 in neutral-site games and 3-7 in road games.
Part of UCLA’s recent problem has been horrible starts. The Bruins have trailed by double figures in the first half of seven of their last nine games, somehow winning three times after quickly finding themselves down by 10 or more points.
Bartow said the team has varied its offensive and defensive tendencies in an effort to break out of its habit of falling into an early funk, but is still seeking a solution with its season on the brink.
“Win or go home,” point guard Jaylen Hands said. “So we gotta fix that.”
Hands was counting on a quick fix given the weight of the luggage he planned to bring on the trip.
“Packing four days’ worth of clothes,” Hands said. “Trying to get home on Sunday.”
When: Wednesday, 6 p.m.
Where: T-Mobile Arena, Las Vegas.
On the air: TV: Pac-12 Networks; Radio: 570.
Update: Bartow said freshman center Moses Brown, the team’s leading rebounder and shot-blocker, would return after a one-game suspension for an unspecified violation of the student-athlete conduct code. Brown is dealing with some nagging Achilles’ soreness, but is expected to retake his spot in the starting lineup. Junior shooting guard Prince Ali will not play in the tournament after testing the plantar fasciitis in his left foot that has sidelined him for the team’s last five games, Bartow said. The status of Stanford guard Daejon Davis, the team’s second-leading scorer, is considered a game-time decision because of an ankle injury that has sidelined him the last two games.