Toasting a Pac-12 title will require road-weary UCLA to beat Oregon
Mick Cronin is a connoisseur of velvety pinot noir, but his second trip to the Willamette Valley in three months won’t involve any tastings. Consider it more of a sour grapes tour.
UCLA’s road to the Pac-12 Conference championship keeps going through Oregon because conference officials say they want equity in crowning their regular-season champion.
The Bruins (17-6 overall, 13-4 Pac-12) playing the Ducks (17-5, 12-4) on Wednesday evening at Matthew Knight Arena in a makeup game will help each team finish the season with an equal number of home and road games, though Cronin hotly disputed the notion that his team’s game against Stanford in Santa Cruz should count as a neutral-court game.
UCLA ventured to Eugene in December only to have the game postponed shortly before tipoff because an official tested positive for COVID-19. Subsequent makeup games scheduled for Jan. 19 in Eugene and Feb. 1 in Los Angeles were wiped out after the Ducks paused basketball activities because of their own virus issues.
A trip to Las Vegas for the Pac-12 tournament could do more bad than good for UCLA, which is already a lock for the NCAA tournament, according to projections.
This will be the second consecutive season in which Oregon won’t have played the Bruins at Pauley Pavilion, the Ducks skipping the trip last season because of the conference’s unbalanced schedule.
“Hopefully at some point Oregon will play at UCLA in my career at UCLA,” Cronin quipped Monday. “It would be nice. I mean, as much as I know Oregon’s got a lot of nice pinots up there, I don’t have time to go pick up anything.”
A Pac-12 championship would be a worthy substitute. Looking at the banners hanging inside the team’s practice facility this week, Bruins forward Cody Riley said he noticed that UCLA had not won the conference’s regular-season title since 2013, an unusually lengthy drought for a program that has collected 27 of them over the last half century.
A victory over the Ducks would likely lead to a winner-take-all showdown between the Bruins and USC on Saturday at Pauley Pavilion, should the Trojans beat Stanford on Wednesday.
It would also help UCLA persevere through a wobbly stretch that has followed its first 8-0 start in conference play since the 1982-83 team.
“We got off to such a good start, it would be such a waste of all the time we spent in here to let that slip away like that, especially when we’re in control,” Bruins guard Jaylen Clark said, alluding to UCLA controlling its own destiny in the title race. “Our team, we’re so good at every position when we’re ready and willing to defend and play together. I feel like if we play together, there’s nobody in this league that can beat us.”
Clark’s defense could be pivotal against the Ducks as the freshman’s role continues to increase. Cronin said he wanted Clark to guard the opponent’s best player, meaning he could spend time on either guard Chris Duarte or forward Eugene Omoruyi, both top-five scorers in the Pac-12. UCLA guard Jules Bernard will likely start the game on Duarte before Clark comes off the bench.
UCLA’s final two games against Oregon on the road and No. 19 USC at home will provide Bruins opportunities before the NCAA tournament.
Giving Clark more minutes could keep Jaime Jaquez Jr. fresher as the sophomore guard struggles with consistency amid a heavy workload. Jaquez bottomed out with three points in 35 minutes against Colorado, making only one of six shots and also having trouble defensively. Fewer minutes could lead to more production.
“I’m a big believer in a guy can give you just as much in 30 minutes as he gives you in 35,” Cronin said, “and he might even be better in his 30 if you can get him some rest and get him down from 35.”
Oregon could have its own fatigue issues. The Ducks will be playing their fifth game in 10 days, racing to make up games while staying in contention for the conference title.
All things considered, at least they will be home.
When: 6 p.m.
Where: Matthew Knight Arena, Eugene, Ore.
On the air: TV: ESPN2; Radio: 570.
Update: Cronin said he wanted to get David Singleton back in sync after the reserve guard tied his season low with six minutes against Colorado, going scoreless. “As I told Dave, he’s got to keep his head up, it’s nothing that he’s done,” Cronin said. “I’ve got to get him back in there and get him back in a rhythm.”
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