The Bruins will be fighting for first place in Pauley Pavilion.
UCLA men’s basketball (17-11, 10-5 Pac-12) will host Arizona State (19-8, 10-4) on Thursday in the opener of its final two-game homestand of the regular season. UCLA currently sits in a three-way tie for second place in the Pac-12 – alongside No. 14 Oregon and No. 21 Colorado – behind only Arizona State.
Two wins this weekend would guarantee UCLA boasts at least part of the conference lead when it heads into its final game against crosstown rival USC.
“It’s definitely awesome,” said freshman guard/forward Jake Kyman. “It’s crazy, also, given that everyone put us back down the bottom of the Pac-12 at the beginning of the season. It’s really relieving for us, but (we) also know we’ve got to stay focused.”
Despite being unranked, Arizona State has the best conference record in the Pac-12 and handed UCLA one of its two losses in the Bruins’ recent 9-2 stretch.
The game was as close as one point late in the first half, but the Sun Devils finished the night 14-of-24 from distance with four players making three or more 3-pointers en route to a double-digit victory. UCLA turned the ball over 10 times in the contest, and Arizona State logged four blocks and four steals.
“(The Sun Devils) play fast, but they create a lot of turnovers and I don’t think they get the credit for their defense,” said coach Mick Cronin. “They made shots but they turned us over and we never really got comfortable and that game got away from us, to me, because of their defense.”
UCLA was without redshirt sophomore forward/center Jalen Hill – who leads the team with 6.9 rebounds per game – in that Feb. 6 matchup. While Hill is set to be on the court this weekend, he said he remembers how hard it was to watch the first matchup with Arizona State from the bench.
“It was tough because I knew I could be out there if I really wanted to,” Hill said. “But it was just hard seeing us lose like that.”
Without Hill, Arizona State forward Romello White – who leads the Pac-12 with 9.2 rebounds per game and who has the second-best field goal percentage in the conference at a 60.6% clip – grabbed 16 rebounds against UCLA the first time around, tied for his second-most in a game this season.
But since the loss in Tempe, the Bruins have gone on a five-game winning streak, aided by contributions from Hill and redshirt sophomore forward Cody Riley. Hill has recorded five blocks and four steals in the last five games, and Riley has averaged 12.2 points per game over the stretch while adding three blocks of his own.
Cronin said the growth of Hill and Riley in the post has been crucial to his team’s development over the last few weeks.
“Shot-blocking is huge, to have an anchor defensively, somebody that protects the rim – they’ve both done that,” Cronin said. “Without their development, we’re not where we are. We’re not a game out of first place with three to play without their development.”
Arizona State shot 50.0% from the field and 58.3% from distance, including 14 made 3s, against UCLA in early February. The Bruins have since held the next five opponents to 44.6% or lower from the field and 42.3% from distance.
With the matchup being in Pauley Pavilion this time around, Cronin said the extra energy from a home crowd could be just what the Bruins need.
“Hopefully it will be a packed house Thursday night – that would be fun,” Cronin said. “The crowd was a big factor in our comeback against Washington … but you’ve got to give them a reason to get into it. You’ve got to start getting some stops and get the ball into the basket.”
Tipoff for first place will be Thursday at 8 p.m.