A year ago, this game meant something. It was a nonconference game in the middle of the season with real postseason implications.
It involved one of the Big East Conference’s best teams making a tough road trip across the country to face a Pac-12 contender with both teams vying to cement an at-large bid to the upcoming NCAA Tournament, not to mention a former UCLA basketball coach coming back to Westwood.
This season, as UCLA prepares to face St. John’s at Madison Square Garden in New York City on Saturday, the game is mostly meaningless.
Neither team is projected to make the NCAA’s postseason field with an at-large berth. Both are merely playing for seeding in their respective conference tournaments, their only chance to punch their ticket to the Big Dance.
The coaching storyline isn’t even still intact. Former UCLA coach Steve Lavin, whose return to Pauley Pavilion was highly anticipated last season, won’t be on the sidelines Saturday as he continues his recovery after prostate cancer surgery.
Lavin last coached the Red Storm on Nov. 18 and has been replaced in large part by assistant Mike Dunlap. Lavin remains close to the team, coming to a few practices and keeping in touch with his players as much as he can.
UCLA’s players seem to be keeping motivated at the prospect of playing in the Garden, an arena senior guard Jerime Anderson called “the Mecca” of basketball and the home of the NBA’s New York Knicks.
It’s not unfamiliar territory for an upperclassman like Anderson but winning there would be a new concept. UCLA split a pair of games there in the preseason 2K Sports Classic in 2008, falling to Michigan in the semifinals and beating Southern Illinois in the consolation game.
Last season, the Bruins returned to the Garden in the NIT Season Tip-Off and dropped a pair of games to Villanova and VCU, a team that would eventually make the Final Four.
“I’m excited to go out there and play,” Anderson said. “It doesn’t get any better than that.”
Anderson and the team will need that excitement to carry them through Saturday’s game if they want to change their luck in the Big Apple. Fatigue could play a big factor in a peculiar week for the Bruins.
After beating USC 64-54 on Wednesday, the Bruins had Thursday off before flying today. Initially, Wednesday’s game against perhaps the worst USC team in program history looked like a chance to get UCLA’s starters some rest near the end of the game.
Instead, all five starters played more than 30 minutes as coach Ben Howland was concerned about USC staging a comeback.
“I’m just happy we got the win,” Howland said Wednesday. “(Thursday) is a day off. (Friday) just a long day of travel. These guys are 19, 20 and 21 years old.”
Redshirt sophomore forward Travis Wear said he wasn’t concerned about the hectic week of travel.
“It’s not too bad,” he said. “Luckily I’m pretty much all done with my midterms. Yeah, the week is a little more compact but it’s really not that big of an issue.”