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UCLA to face Washington schools while at crossroads of Pac-12 season

UCLA to face Washington schools while at crossroads of Pac-12 season
USC guard Elijah Stewart goes to the ground after colliding with UCLA guard Bryce Alford. Both USC and UCLA need big weeks against the visiting Washington schools. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Steve Alford, the men's basketball coach at UCLA, had just finished his weekly news conference when he popped back toward a group of reporters.

"Hey," he said, excitement rising. "You guys want to talk to Jonah?"

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Jonah Bolden, the forward from Australia, was walking by.

"It's Australia National Day today," Alford said.

It was a moment of levity in what Alford described as an increasingly tense Pac-12 Conference season.

UCLA will reach the midpoint of conference play after a game against Washington on Thursday followed by a game against Washington State on Saturday. The Bruins have 11 games remaining and will play each Pac-12 team once.

"There are a lot of leagues, if you looked at that … there's four or five you feel pretty good about," Alford said.

That's not the case in the balanced Pac-12.

"It's going to be nerve-racking for coaches," Alford said, echoing a statement he has made several times recently. "That's for sure."

The conference race is so tight that each week UCLA players and coaches have wondered aloud whether their season had reached a crucial juncture. That refrain was heard again this week.

UCLA is tied for with Oregon State for ninth in the conference. Yet, the Bruins are only two games back of first-place Oregon and Washington.

"We're in the 10 hole right now, which doesn't sound good," guard Bryce Alford said. "But you look at it, and if we sweep this week, we could easily be one game back of first place. Which is crazy."

And if UCLA doesn't sweep?

"Then we find ourselves in a really tough spot," Steve Alford said.

Improved look

Even before USC left for Oregon last week, Jordan McLaughlin was dealing with a cough and a fever that wore him down.

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He hoped it would be gone by the time USC played Oregon on Thursday. But the fever lingered. It lasted seven or eight days, USC Coach Andy Enfield said, and McLaughlin had his worst two games this season.

The sophomore guard scored three points against Oregon and six against Oregon State. He had a total of two rebounds and four assists in the two games.

"He didn't look himself, offensively, defensively, his movements and his facial expressions. He didn't look like the same person," Enfield said. "It really wore his body down, he didn't have a lot of energy, a lot of strength."

As USC has prepared for games at the Galen Center against Washington State on Thursday and Washington on Saturday, McLaughlin hasn't sat out practice and Enfield said the fever is gone.

"We hope he's back," Enfield said. "He looks a lot better."

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