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UCLA’s late-season surge secures Bruins a bye in Pac-12 tournament

UCLA's Chris Smith, left, and Jaime Jaquez Jr. react to a blocked shot during the Bruins' win over Arizona on Saturday.
UCLA’s Chris Smith, left, and Jaime Jaquez Jr. react to a blocked shot during the Bruins’ win Feb. 29 over Arizona.
(Jayne Kamin-Oncea / Getty Images)

There will be rest for the weary.

UCLA’s get-out-of-my-way push into the top spot of the Pac-12 Conference standings over the last month will result in an extra day off during the conference tournament.

That means some extra sleep and maybe another trip to the cold tub for worn-down Bruins such as freshman point guard Tyger Campbell.

“Tyger needs, like, a couple days off,” UCLA coach Mick Cronin said Saturday after Campbell’s wobbly-legged floater in the final minute nudged the Bruins past Arizona at Pauley Pavilion. “God bless him. The guy’s extremely, extremely tired.”

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The breather will come courtesy of a top-four finish that is now a certainty thanks to the Bruins (19-11 overall, 12-5 Pac-12) having won seven games in a row and 11 of their last 13.

UCLA is assured of no worse than a No. 3 seeding in the tournament, meaning it will get to bypass an appearance in the dreaded first round. But predicting its quarterfinal opponent on March 12 at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas isn’t as easy as one-two-three.

UCLA could finish anywhere from first to third in the conference standings. Beating archrival USC on Saturday at the Galen Center won’t be enough to ensure that the Bruins keep their hold on first place.

Developments anticipated two or three years into the future are happening already, as UCLA now stands alone atop the Pac-12, Dylan Hernandez writes.

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Oregon (22-7, 11-5) can claim that spot with home victories this week against California and Stanford by virtue of having beaten UCLA in the teams’ only meeting this season.

Arizona State (19-10, 10-6), which plays Washington and Washington State at home this week, also remains in the running for the conference championship. The Sun Devils would need some significant help, however, with losses galore by the Bruins and Ducks.

If UCLA finished in a two-way tie with Arizona State atop the standings, the Sun Devils would get the top seeding for the conference tournament because they went 1-1 against Oregon, assuming the Ducks finish with the next highest position in the standings.

If UCLA, Oregon and Arizona State finished in a three-way tie, then the title goes to the Ducks because they went 2-1 in head-to-head competition among the three teams as opposed to Arizona State’s 2-2 record and UCLA’s 1-2 record.

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A victory over the Trojans this week would possibly allow the Bruins to leave Las Vegas without any doubts about their NCAA tournament chances.As of Monday, the two most prominent bracketologists had included UCLA as part of the field of 68 teams in their most recent projections.

UCLA's Tyger Campbell drives to the basket in front of Arizona's Max Hazzard during the Bruins' win Saturday.
(Jayne Kamin-Oncea / Getty Images)

ESPN’s Joe Lunardi penciled in the Bruins as his automatic qualifier from the Pac-12 by virtue of their leading the conference standings, even though the only real automatic qualifier will be the conference tournament champion. CBS Sports’ Jerry Palm gave UCLA a No. 11 seeding in the South Region.

UCLA did receive some newfound respect from the Athletic’s Seth Davis, who moved the Bruins into his national rankings at No. 24.

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Meanwhile, the widely panned NET rankings, which take into account a team’s season-long body of work, continued to bear zero resemblance to the Pac-12 standings. Among the discrepancies: UCLA’s NET ranking of No. 76 put it in ninth place among conference teams, behind last-place Washington’s NET of 70. The Bruins can blame home losses to Cal State Fullerton and Hofstra for that.

“Like I told the guys, we were an underdog [Saturday], a lot of people still don’t believe in us and we’ve got to continue to play one-game tournaments,” Cronin said, alluding to his approaching every game as one that could eliminate his team. “We cannot change our mentality.”

UCLA looks to continue its hot streak and be on the top of the Pac-12 standings when the Bruins host Arizona State on Thursday at Pauley Pavilion.

At least now there’s one fewer elimination possibility. UCLA will have to win only three games — not four — to capture its first Pac-12 tournament title since 2014. Colorado and Oregon remain the only Pac-12 teams to have captured the tournament by winning four games, having done so in 2012 and 2019, respectively.

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“It gives you an extra day off and late in the year I think it can help you, but we’ve still got to win games,” Cronin said. “In Power Five leagues, how many teams won conference tournaments without a bye? Very few.”

The need for extra rest is particularly acute among Campbell and Jaime Jaquez Jr., freshmen who are logging heavy minutes while playing a college schedule for the first time. Campbell is also coming off a lengthy injury layoff after undergoing surgery to repair a torn knee ligament.

“He’s been through a lot this year,” Cronin said. “We’ve got to get him rested for Saturday.”


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