UCLA in search of late-season wins to make NCAA Tournament
LOS ANGELES (AP) — These are humble days for UCLA basketball, with the Bruins desperate to get into the NCAA Tournament any way they can.
They are down to a couple of chances: win the Pac-12 tournament and the league’s automatic berth that goes with it or cross their fingers that their strength of schedule impresses the selection committee.
First, though, the Bruins (18-12, 10-7) need a victory over Southern California in their regular season finale on Wednesday night to lock up the fourth seed for the conference tournament. That may not seem like such a lofty goal for a school that’s won 35 league titles and a record 11 national championships, but it would give the Bruins a first-round bye in Las Vegas.
“Our whole focus is going to be on this one game to try to solidify fourth place,” coach Steve Alford said.
Long-time UCLA fans probably can’t recall John Wooden talking that way, but it’s the new reality in Westwood.
According to some evaluators, the Bruins played the toughest non-conference schedule of any Pac-12 school. But they failed to get any signature wins out it, losing to ranked North Carolina, Gonzaga, Kentucky, Utah and Arizona. The back-to-back defeats to Gonzaga and Kentucky kicked off a five-game losing skid in December and early January before the Bruins won eight of their next 11.
“We get this one (win) Wednesday, we’re 19-12 with the hardest schedule strength in the Pac-12. That is hard on a young team,” Alford said. “To finish that strong, it would be terrific for this team.”
Stanford (9-7) has a shot at knocking the Bruins out of the fourth spot if the Cardinal can sweep the Arizona schools this week and the Trojans (3-14) upset the Bruins.
“It’s just big for us,” forward Tony Parker said. “We got to win games and it’s March.”
A year ago, the Bruins won the league tournament and made the NCAA Tournament in Alford’s first season in Westwood, losing to Florida in the regional semifinals. The program took a major hit this season after losing underclassmen Jordan Adams, Kyle Anderson and Zach LaVine to the first round of the NBA draft.
But forward Kevon Looney has been a bright spot, averaging 12.3 points and 9.4 rebounds, third-highest in the nation. His 13 double-doubles are the most of any freshman in the country.
Norman Powell, the Bruins’ lone senior, was named the Pac-12 player of the week for the third time this season after averaging 26.0 points, 5.5 rebounds, two assists and two steals in last weekend’s sweep of the Washington schools.
“We control our own destiny,” Parker said. “We have a chance to go undefeated at home in the conference season and set up what we want to do in the Pac-12 tournament. There’s a lot of motivation.”
If UCLA and Stanford end up tied for fourth, the Bruins would win the tiebreaker because they swept both games against the Cardinal.
The Bruins beat USC 83-66 on their crosstown rival’s court in mid-January. The Trojans’ three Pac-12 wins are one more than they had last season under Andy Enfield, the former NCAA Tournament darling in his second season with USC.
“We’ve had a very frustrating year as far as our wins and losses,” Enfield said. “We weren’t very good early in the year. They kept coming back and didn’t get discouraged.”
Like the Bruins, the Trojans are a young team. Without any seniors, they start three freshmen and two sophomores, making them the fourth-youngest team in the nation, according to some evaluators. They’ve lost seven games by five points or less.
The Trojans’ three league wins have all come at home, including 70-55 over Washington last weekend.
Going to UCLA has been problematic for them.
USC is 3-4 in its last seven visits to Pauley Pavilion, where its most recent visit in January 2014 resulted in a 107-73 defeat, the most points allowed by the Trojans in a game since 2000.
“They’ve kind of been kicking out butts lately,” guard Julian Jacobs said.
At the same time, the Trojans have nothing to lose, unlike the Bruins, who need every victory they can get to bolster their resume. Beating USC would put them on a three-game winning streak.
“It’s March,” Parker of UCLA said. “We got to be on our P’s and Q’s.”