Saturday, August 18

Smith Says: Men’s basketball struggles to stay afloat as season winds down


Although the UCLA men’s basketball team earned a No.3 seed in the NCAA Tournament last year, a three-game loss this season has UCLA in a desperate position to gain ground. (Amy Dixon/Assistant Photo editor)

Although the UCLA men’s basketball team earned a No.3 seed in the NCAA Tournament last year, a three-game loss this season has UCLA in a desperate position to gain ground. (Amy Dixon/Assistant Photo editor)


Conference play has not exactly gone according to plan for the Bruins this season.

Back in July, I wrote about why UCLA men’s basketball (16-7, 7-4 Pac-12) was in better position to make noise within the Pac-12 than they were a year ago – and I still think I was right – but the Bruins are doing their best to prove me wrong.

Last season, UCLA fought through a grueling schedule that included two matchups with both Oregon and Arizona. The Bruins split the meetings with each school, but only lost one other conference game the rest of the season, clinching a No.3-seed in the NCAA Tournament.

UCLA was able to hold on to a top-seed despite the disadvantage of having to play two schools that were hot on its trail twice apiece.

This season, it’s the opposite.

After suffering a pivotal three-game slide in mid-January that included a home loss to Colorado and pair of road losses to the Oregon schools, UCLA found itself looking up at the rest of the Pac-12.

And although I argued in the offseason that not having to face Arizona twice this season would be an advantage, it has proven to be the opposite, now that UCLA is in a position in which it is desperate to gain ground.

The Bruins are only trailing the first place Wildcats by two games – despite some frustration among the fanbase with three weeks left in conference play but are running out of time. Senior center Thomas Welsh, who was a central part of last year’s team, recognizes the disadvantage that the new conference scheduling has posed for UCLA.

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“It is what it is, but you’d like to play every team twice, home and away, but that’s just the way the Pac-12 works out,” Welsh said. “We only get to play (Arizona) once this year and it’ll be a big game for sure with that opportunity.”

Even in the event of an upset this weekend, the schedule after Arizona does not get any easier for UCLA, who are currently projected to be in the “First Four Out,” according to ESPN’s Joe Lunardi.

In the final five games of the season, UCLA will have to play all three teams it fell to during its three-game losing skid a month ago.

With such little room for error, coach Steve Alford made it clear that his team cannot afford to falter down the stretch, especially with so many other schools floating in the same boat.

“So we’re not different than most teams in the country – we’re in that first week in February and (we’ve got to) make sure we get better,” Alford said. “You can’t take two steps forward, one step back this time of year.”

Despite the stakes being so high as the season winds down, the players are still optimistic about where they stand and what’s to come.

When asked about the Arizona game earlier this week, freshman forward Chris Smith said he was excited for not only the challenge of facing a top team, but also for being a part of what should be a wild atmosphere.

“I love going into other people’s places and competing,” Smith said. “It’s always fun because (the opponents) have the crowd behind them, but as a team, it’s our job to work against them and the crowd and try to come up with the win.”

This weekend is just the first step in what will be a telling three weeks for UCLA men’s basketball. They may be able to afford a loss to Arizona, but anything beyond that could be the nail in the coffin for the Bruins’ season.

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Smith is an assistant Sports editor. He was previously a contributor for the women's basketball beat.


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