Now it’s win or go home.
The Bruins will play their first post-season game tonight at Staples Center in the second round of the Pac-10 Tournament. If they lose to Oregon, they’ll indeed go home, but only until next week, when the team will fly somewhere for a different date in the NCAA Tournament.
If the NCAA tournament is UCLA’s prom ““ the big dance ““ you can think of this weekend’s warm-up as a smaller winter formal.
“The Pac-10 Tournament can put you where you want to be, as far as who you play and what your seeding is,” sophomore forward Tyler Honeycutt said. “We’re going to have a week of rest or so, and so we have to grind out these last few games and win as many as we can.”
Honeycutt talks about “grinding” games out because the next stretch could be more taxing than a day of back-to-back finals.
The team is nursing bumps and bruises. Coach Ben Howland said Tuesday that junior guard Malcolm Lee has a small cartilage tear in his left knee, freshman guard Tyler Lamb is recovering from strep throat, and junior guard Jerime Anderson is fighting another illness.
Howland will bring this battered bunch to Staples today in what could be the first of three games in three days.
“It’s going to be hard, no question,” Howland said.
Today’s second-round game against the Ducks could actually prove to be the most important.
“We’ve got to win the first game just to get a considerate seeding,” Lee said. “If we lose the first game it will drop us a lot, and we don’t want that to happen. … But even if everything goes wrong, we’ve got to get this first game out of the way.”
ESPN’s Joe Lunardi moved UCLA up to a No. 7 seed as of Wednesday.
Lee and a few of his teammates said they think winning the Pac-10 tournament could push UCLA as high as a No. 5 seed.
But simply getting a No. 7 seed or higher could be critical because it would allow the Bruins to bypass No. 1 seeds in the second round, if they make it that far.
“In the second game, we don’t want to come against a Duke or Ohio State,” Lee said. “But if that happens, so be it. We think we can compete with any team in the country.”
So even though the Bruins know that it’s not technically “win or go home” just yet, they also know that these games matter.
“Now the stakes are a little higher in both tournaments,” sophomore guard Reeves Nelson said. “We’re going to be in (the NCAA Tournament), so we know these games have added importance.”
Howland told reporters Tuesday that Lee’s cartilage tear resulted from a play near the end of UCLA’s win at Washington State. Lee was sent for an MRI in Spokane, Wash., but was ordered to undergo a second MRI at UCLA, which confirmed the tear.
Lee was held out of practice Tuesday and planned to do only light shooting on Wednesday, but is expected to play today.
Lee said he plans to have surgery to repair the left knee after the season.
Though both Howland and Lee said there is minimal risk of further injury, the coach said he would more closely monitor Lee’s minutes, moving him down from around 36 to 30 minutes per game.