No, UCLA does not need to win this weekend’s Pac-12 tournament to reach the NCAA Tournament.
The No. 3 Bruins (28-3, 15-3 Pac-12) have already done more than enough to secure a ticket to the Big Dance, but their performance in the conference tourney could play a significant role in determining how deep into March – or early April – they play.
The Pac-12 tournament will not only help prepare a squad reliant on freshman for the win-or-go-home pressure of March Madness, but will also likely decide whether UCLA has geography on its side throughout the early part of the NCAA tourney.
Though conference tournament results across the country could shake up the picture, the dominant line of thinking among bracketologists is that the Pac-12’s top three teams – No. 5 Oregon (27-4, 16-2), No. 7 Arizona (27-4, 16-2) and UCLA – are battling Thursday in Las Vegas to secure the No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament’s West Regional.
Whichever two of those three teams fall short of the Pac-12 tournament title will still likely snag a No. 2 or No. 3 seed but in another region. That would make a big difference.
Research conducted in 2011 by FiveThirtyEight found that teams playing closer to home than their opponents enjoy a significant advantage in the NCAA Tournament. A disparity in travel distance of 1,000 miles, for example, is worth about two or three points, only slightly less than the effect of true home-court advantage.
And the Pac-12 teams have even greater reason to seek a favorable regional slot than teams in other conferences. Because of their separation from the rest of the country, West Coast teams are more likely to feel the impact of geography, either favorable or unfavorable.
Oregon is the favorite to win the Pac-12 tournament, per Odds Shark, in large part because of its No. 1 seeding, which means it won’t have to face either UCLA or Arizona until a potential matchup in the finals.
Of the top three teams, UCLA arguably has the most difficult path to the tournament title, likely having to face USC (24-8, 10-8), Arizona and Oregon in order to come out on top.
“If we don’t play good basketball … we won’t be there very long,” coach Steve Alford said. “It’s definitely a tough route, but it’s just the way it happens.”
The Bruins are also dealing with the uncertain status of freshman forward TJ Leaf, who sprained his ankle in the March 1 game against Washington. Leaf, the team’s second-leading scorer and rebounder, practiced with the team Tuesday and Alford said he expects the big man to play Thursday.
“I think it’s progressing very well,” Alford said before Tuesday’s practice. “His treatments have gone very well. He’s healing very well. … We fully anticipate him going on Thursday.”
Besides integrating Leaf back into the lineup, UCLA won’t be trying to change much as it looks to extend a nine-game winning streak that includes wins over USC, Arizona and Oregon.
“I haven’t been this confident going into a Pac-12 tournament or a postseason in my career,” said senior guard Bryce Alford. “I’ve always been a very confident guy, but this year there is something about us. We’re built for this kind of stuff.”
Whether the Bruins are built for a top seed in the NCAA Tournament is another debate.
ESPN’s Joe Lunardi listed UCLA as a No. 3 seed in his Wednesday edition of Bracketology. Though the Bruins have beaten every team on their schedule, as Steve Alford likes to point out, they are just 16th in the nation in RPI, a statistic favored by bracketologists that accounts for strength of schedule.
A conference tourney title – and the accompanying victories over strong opponents – would greatly enhance UCLA’s resume.
The Bruins aren’t thinking about that. They just want to keep riding the momentum they’ve built up over the past month.
“We’re playing a good brand of basketball right now,” said senior guard Isaac Hamilton. “We’ve just got to continue to keep playing it.”