LAS VEGAS — Of all the things Shabazz Muhammad will see when he returns to his hometown for the Pac-12 Tournament this week – family, friends, his mother’s cooking – he has one thing on his mind.
“Winning it,” Muhammad said.
After receiving a bye for the opening round by winning the regular-season championship, Muhammad and the top-seeded Bruins will open Pac-12 Tournament play today at noon in Las Vegas against Arizona State.
“He’s returning home as a conquering hero who led his team to the Pac-12 championship, and he’s a projected (NBA) lottery pick,” said coach Ben Howland “He’s the freshman of the year in the conference, but that’s nothing amazing for anybody there. They’ve seen this kid his whole life.”
Tournament play got underway in Sin City on Wednesday when ninth-seeded Arizona State needed overtime to defeat eighth-seeded Stanford. Back in Westwood, No. 21 UCLA delayed its practice until the outcome of that game was decided.
The Bruins (23-8, 13-5 Pac-12) may have hoped for a different opponent, as they swept the season series against the Cardinal but were handed their worst defeat of the season by the Sun Devils (21-11, 9-9 Pac-12) in Tempe, Ariz., and took overtime to beat them in their second match in Los Angeles.
The conference’s co-freshmen of the year will go head-to-head with Muhammad facing Arizona State freshman guard Jahii Carson. Carson had 34 points on Wednesday and 22 against UCLA in February.
Despite the distractions that Las Vegas brings – the tournament is being played in the same building as a casino at MGM Grand Garden Arena – the Bruins are trying to keep focused.
“It’s a business trip,” said freshman guard Kyle Anderson.
“I’m happy I’m not 21,” he said. “There’s a lot going on at the Strip … so we just have to stay focused and get our sleep. We’re looking forward to winning this.”
Winning the Pac-12 means an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament, but popular opinion says the Bruins are in regardless. As of Wednesday, ESPN’s Bracketology had UCLA as No. 6 seed. CBS Sports predicts a seventh seed.
Howland believes winning this tournament could increase his team’s chances of drawing a nearby NCAA destination rather than a site as far east as Philadelphia.
“I’m more concerned with being seeded closer to home than whatever seed we are,” Howland said. “We control that based on how we perform.”
The potential for three games in three days this week doesn’t have Howland reconsidering his substitution patterns. True to form, he’s taking it one game at a time.
“We’re just trying to win the next game, whatever it is,” Howland said. “I’m going to treat it how I would any other game.”
Contributing reports from Ryan Menezes, Bruin Sports senior staff.