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Column: Streaking UCLA deserving of No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament

UCLA guard Jaime Jaquez Jr., left, shoots over Arizona center Oumar Ballo during the second half.
UCLA guard Jaime Jaquez Jr., left, shoots over Arizona center Oumar Ballo during the second half of the Bruins’ 82-73 win Saturday night at Pauley Pavilion. Jaquez had 22 points and 10 rebounds for UCLA, which extended its winning streak to 10 games.
(Ringo H.W. Chiu / Associated Press)
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They play such scathing defense, the crowd roars with every deflection.

They are so smart on offense, the crowd roars with every screen.

They are so ready for the road ahead that a full and rollicking Pauley Pavilion sent them off Saturday night with the sort of noise rarely heard in this part of Westwood.

This is the loudest UCLA basketball team in years.

This is the best one, too.

In the wake of the Bruins’ biggest victory of the season — a 82-73 win over eighth-ranked Arizona — there is only one place for UCLA to go from here.

UCLA defeated Arizona 82-73 on Senior Night to cap a perfect season at Pauley Pavilion, but Jaylen Clark suffered an injury. He will have an MRI on Sunday.

March 4, 2023

The Bruins are deserving of a No. 1 seed in the upcoming NCAA tournament no matter what happens in this week’s unsightly and mostly irrelevant Pac-12 tournament.

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The selection committee needs to lose its inherent regional bias, forget those bad feelings surrounding UCLA leaving for the Big Ten, and do the right thing.

UCLA is a one-seed. Period. No team is tougher. No team is more tested. No other team has spent the last four years together preparing for this moment.

The 27-4 Bruins might not be future NBA stars, but they are terrific and experienced college players, and that’s what wins championships.

On a night when the five Bruins seniors were honored in likely their last game at Pauley Pavilion, one number stood out among the star trio of Jaime Jaquez Jr., Tyger Campbell and David Singleton.

Over the last four seasons, they have led the team to 95-34 record.

That’s a title number. After Saturday’s final buzzer, that’s a number that inspired the senior-led group to sprint from the court, run into the end-zone stands, and leap into a mosh pit of bouncing and cheering students.

There’s something special happening here. They know it, and you know it.

“We came to UCLA … there was nobody at the games … we were on a mission to put UCLA back on top,” Jaquez said. “We’re living a dream right now … it’s literally like a … storybook for me.”

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It was a glorious night darkened by a bleak injury, but one that this team seems deep enough to overcome.

During the timeout after defensive grinder Jaylen Clark left the game early in the second half with a lower-leg injury, it was perhaps no coincidence that the arena was filled with the sounds of, “Don’t Stop Believin’.”

While Bruins fans surely immediately thought of how Jaquez’s ankle injury helped derail their NCAA tournament hopes last season, these Bruins appear strong enough to survive an extended absence by Clark, who ended the game on the bench in crutches.

“If he’s not OK, I will feel tragically awful for him because he’s a family member to us,” coach Mick Cronin said of Clark. “But we’ve got plenty of other guys.”

UCLA guard Tyger Campbell, right, drives past Arizona guard Kylan Boswell during the first half.
(Ringo H.W. Chiu / Associated Press)

There are Will McClendon and Dylan Andrews, two highly touted kids who have been barely seen. There’s shot-blocking force Adem Bona. And, of course, there are the three seniors.

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“Our seniors…I didn’t think they were going to let us lose today,” Cronin said.

These Bruins are so loaded, they have won a nation-high 25 consecutive games in what used to be a quiet Pauley Pavilion.

These Bruins seem so destined, they ended their home schedule with the streak intact on a night when they also celebrated the 50th anniversary of the 1973 national championship.

If Saturday was any indication, more memories are coming.

The Bruins forced 17 Arizona turnovers, outrebounded the bigger Wildcats by six, and scored more second-chance points and fast-break points and points in the paint.

They basically wrestled one of the country’s most physical teams to the mat and pinned them. That’s how you win amid the Madness. That’s why you don’t want to bet against them.

“The recipe for success in March is … a great point guard and some senior leadership,’’ Cronin said. “So we’ve got a chance.”

Since Cronin took over from Steve Alford, the program has been building toward this month.

In his first season, he built a team that was one of the hottest in the country before COVID-19 shut everything down. Two years ago, they advanced to the Final Four. Last year they advanced to the Sweet 16.

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They now appear ready to take the final step.

There is none of the indecisiveness that plagued that first Cronin season. There surely cannot be another 40-foot jump shot waiting to defeat them as in 2021. They play better as a team than last season, when the ball often stopped in deference to scorer Johnny Juzang.

They are playing their best defense of the Cronin era. They are playing with the highest basketball IQ of the Cronin era. They are playing as well as anybody in the country.

What seniors Jaime Jaquez Jr., Tyger Campbell and David Singleton have meant to the team in restoring UCLA to prominence before showdown with Arizona.

March 3, 2023

They began Saturday fourth in net rating, and two of the three teams ahead of them lost, with both Alabama and Tennessee falling to lesser opponents.

They began Saturday second in the respected KenPom basketball ratings, and even if you don’t understand all those decimals, you understand that they are better suited for a top seed than some of the other more-publicized candidates.

Purdue as a one-seed? The Boilermakers have lost four of their last seven games including a 14-point loss to a Maryland team that UCLA beat by 27.

Alabama as a one-seed? While embroiled in a murder scandal, it has lost two of its last six games including falling Saturday to 24th-rated Texas A&M.

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Houston and Kansas are the only clear-cut, No. 1 seeds, and even Kansas must be questioned after its 16-point loss to eighth-rated Texas on Saturday.

Some might think it’s better for UCLA to be a No. 2 seed if that ensures that it stays in a West region that is being played in Las Vegas.

L.A. Times college basketball experts Ben Bolch, Ryan Kartje and J. Brady McCollough project the Pac-12 tournament and national championship winners.

March 1, 2023

But the Bruins deserve a top seed and a spot in Vegas, where a UCLA fan base that historically doesn’t travel well would fill the Strip. Many of those folks personally have seen some version of this team win 25 straight games. They know it would be worth the trip.

“You got to have talent and good kids,” Cronin said. “These guys are winners.”

Before the game, Jaquez skipped on the court and danced in rhythm with the Bruins’ fight song as senior walk-on Russell Stong IV threw down a layup-line dunk that brought the cheering crowd to its feet.

The game ended with the same energy, Jaquez picking up yet another deflection, laying the ball in to give the Bruins a double-digit lead, and then screaming at thousands of giddy witnesses who screamed back.

Cover your ears, Bruins fans. The next few weeks could be deafening.

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