Sam Settles It: Despite Pac-12 regular-season title, UCLA men’s basketball has much left to prove
Senior guard/forward Jaime Jaquez Jr. (left) smiles at coach Mick Cronin (right) during a game at Pauley Pavilion. Jaquez and Cronin have led No. 4 UCLA men’s basketball to a regular-season Pac-12 championship for the first time since 2013. (Anika Chakrabarti/Photo editor
By Sam Settleman
Feb. 28, 2023 11:19 p.m.
A half-court heave and UCLA had done it.
There would be no top-five showdown in Pauley Pavilion to crown the conference champion. No drama. No raucous celebration in Westwood. Just a monumental moment on an otherwise quiet Saturday afternoon for Bruin basketball.
For the first time since 2013, UCLA earned a share of the Pac-12 regular-season championship.
With his team down two to then-No. 7 Arizona on Saturday, Arizona State’s Desmond Cambridge Jr. took the inbounds pass with 2.9 seconds remaining and threw up a prayer from beyond half court. Cambridge caught nothing but nylon, downing the Wildcats and guaranteeing No. 4 UCLA men’s basketball a share of the Pac-12 regular-season title.
The blue and gold then handled its own business Sunday with a win over Colorado to clinch the title outright and prevent any chance of sharing the crown.
Just like that, without even beating Arizona State or Arizona in its final regular-season weekend, UCLA had accomplished a feat the program had barely sniffed in the last 15 years. But the job is far from finished for the blue and gold.
Jaime Jaquez Jr. knows it.
“We’ve got to understand, we’re playing for something a lot bigger than this,” said the senior guard/forward after UCLA’s win Sunday. “We have an ultimate goal in mind. This was one of the things we needed to do to get there.”
Despite already celebrating their conference championship, the Bruins have much to play for when they welcome the Sun Devils and Wildcats to Pauley Pavilion this weekend.
UCLA has yet to claim a win over an Arizona team that, according to many analysts, sat one bracket line above it entering last weekend. The Wildcats held their own in Tucson with a 58-52 win over the Bruins in January.
Assuming a team has to beat the best to be the best, Saturday’s upcoming regular-season finale against Arizona still holds plenty of weight for UCLA. With this year’s NCAA selection committee evidently favoring quality wins over avoiding bad losses, a pair of wins over the Sun Devils and Wildcats could put the Bruins squarely in the conversation to earn the No. 1 seed in the West.
A loss, however, could raise some questions about UCLA’s ability to beat top competition.
The Pac-12 Tournament may provide UCLA another chance to pick up a signature win, but the opportunities to do so have been few and far between for a Bruin team that may need just that to get over the hump and into the No. 1 seed conversation.
On the individual side, there may be even more obvious implications. Jaquez and Arizona forward Azuolas Tubelis currently stand as the frontrunners for Pac-12 Player of the Year, with Saturday’s head-to-head duel potentially holding a major influence on which player raises the trophy.
Tubelis seemed to have a stranglehold on the award as the conference’s top scorer and rebounder, but the 6-foot-11 forward was played off the court on the defensive end in Arizona’s loss to Arizona State and his resume has started to crack with a pair of Wildcat losses down the stretch.
Jaquez, meanwhile, has averaged 22.2 points and 8.5 rebounds in his last five outings, and has single-handedly taken over for UCLA down the stretch as the Bruins have ripped off eight straight wins.
If UCLA downs Arizona and Jaquez puts together another standout performance to kick off March, the Pac-12 Player of the Year award will almost certainly be coming back to Westwood for the first time since Arron Afflalo and Kevin Love went back to back in 2007 and 2008.
And if UCLA’s March Madness seeding or Jaquez’s Pac-12 Player of the Year contention isn’t motive enough, a pair of wins Thursday and Saturday would extend the nation’s longest home winning streak and secure the Bruins’ first undefeated season in Pauley Pavilion since 2006-2007.
Coincidence or not, that 2007 UCLA team made a Final Four. The 2008 team that did the same went 26-2 in Pauley Pavilion. And even the 2021 Cinderella squad that went from the First Four to the Final Four won 11 out of 12 at home.
Coach Mick Cronin preaches that every great team has one thing in common: they don’t lose at home.
Pac-12 title in hand or not, greatness – and plenty of history – is on the line for UCLA this weekend.