For weeks and weeks, as his team kept finding ways to win, controlling some games and storming back in others, UCLA coach Mick Cronin maintained that the Bruins were in a one-game tournament, their season hinging on every outcome.
Now it might actually be true.
Motivational mantras won’t be necessary when UCLA faces Stanford or California on Thursday evening at T-Mobile Arena in a Pac-12 Conference tournament quarterfinal.
Win, and the resurgent Bruins (19-12) would feel better about their chances of receiving an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. It would be their 12th victory in their last 15 games. It would help offset home losses to Cal State Fullerton and Hofstra. It would get them to 20 victories, a meaningful threshold.
Lose, and UCLA would find itself at the mercy of a tournament selection committee given another reason to be skeptical. Maybe the Bruins’ late-season surge was a mirage, fun while it lasted but not indicative of a team worthy of the biggest stage. Maybe that NET ranking of 76 is more reflective of this team’s relative strength.
The two most prominent bracket prognosticators were in agreement Tuesday that UCLA remained on the fringes of tournament inclusion. While ESPN’s Joe Lunardi listed the Bruins among his “Last Four Byes,” meaning they would go directly into the main draw, CBS Sports’ Jerry Palm projected them among the “Last Four In,” requiring a trip to Dayton, Ohio, for a dreaded play-in game.
“We know we gotta win some games,” UCLA forward Cody Riley said Tuesday, “to get into the March Madness thing.”
Unless it can fix an offense that sputtered during a 54-52 loss to USC last weekend in its regular-season finale, UCLA might be headed back to Pauley Pavilion for a game in the National Invitation Tournament. Cronin noted Tuesday that his team missed 13 unguarded shots, compounding the nine turnovers it committed in the second half.
“When you have nine turnovers in a low-scoring game,” Bruins guard Jaime Jaquez Jr. said, “it’s like a million.”
UCLA guard Chris Smith showed some assertiveness . . . after USC’s Jonah Mathews buried a three-pointer with one second left. Smith vowed that whoever UCLA played in the Pac-12 tournament was “gonna get pummeled” because the Bruins were “taking this all out on them.”
That prompted a chuckle from Cronin, who realized that Smith only meant he wanted to get back on track, even if it didn’t quite come out that way. Smith confirmed as much Tuesday.
“I was just really mad after a loss,” Smith said. “I don’t like losing. Let my emotions get the most of me. But obviously, we want to come out and win the next game. That’s what I was meaning to say.”
In perhaps the season’s most encouraging sign, the Bruins were visibly distraught in the locker room after the USC loss, reminding Cronin of his gritty Cincinnati teams.
“That was a big shift,” Cronin said, “to see our reaction and how upset the guys were.”
If all goes as planned, it won’t be something the Bruins have to experience again soon, if they can recapture the edge that carried them on their late-season push.
“Coach has already prefaced our whole winning streak with the one-game-tournament thing,” Smith said, “so that’s still in our head.”