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UCLA men’s basketball embarks on final road trip before Pac-12 tournament

Junior guard Lazar Stefanovic rises toward the hoop as he attempts a layup. (Myka Fromm/Photo editor)

Men's basketball

Thursday, 7:30 p.m.

Alaska Airlines Arena
Washington State
Saturday, 4 p.m.

Beasley Coliseum
Pac-12 Networks

By Jack Nelson

Feb. 29, 2024 11:00 a.m.

Mick Cronin was unequivocal in criticizing his players’ preparation last week, denouncing it as the worst stretch of practice all season.

The Bruins’ effort behind the scenes was so poor that he sentenced some players to a jog on the treadmill, hoping to instill motivation.

But this campaign – ever waning in Westwood – rolls on regardless.

“Practice (Monday) went the way I wanted it to go, so we’ll see,” the fifth-year coach said. “A little bit better.”

Making its final road trip of the regular season, UCLA men’s basketball (14-13, 9-7 Pac-12) is set for a second faceoff with Washington (15-13, 7-10) and a first meeting with No. 19 Washington State (21-7, 12-5) on Thursday and Saturday, respectively. The Bruins, back on the losing train after consecutive defeats from Utah and USC, are effectively out of contention for an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament.

But a top-four seed in the conference tournament is within their grasp in the last two weeks of the regular season. Only one game over .500 and with no ranked wins on its resume, the only way in for UCLA is to win the Pac-12 tournament title, which would grant an auto-bid into the field.

Four games remain before that opportunity arrives, and redshirt sophomore guard Will McClendon said the team senses the urgency.

“It’s just that we’ve got to be more mature, it’s time to do that,” McClendon said. “There’s no room for any excuses, there’s no room for error, we’ve just got to come together as a team.”

A top-four seed would mean the difference between playing four or three games to win it all in Las Vegas – the quartet of teams finishing with the best record in conference play each earn a first-round bye. UCLA currently sits in fifth place, a half game back of Colorado.

Though the bye would give the Bruins extra rest and a shorter journey to the title game, it makes no difference to Cronin.

“Ultimately, guys, you’re going to have to beat everybody, whether you’ve got to beat three really good teams or four really good teams,” Cronin said. “You’re talking about winning tournaments. There’s no second place.”

The Bruins had won six in a row and eight of nine before dropping consecutive home contests, and if they want to get back on the right foot before the postseason, they’ll have to butt heads with the only ranked teams in the Pac-12.

The Cougars are the first of the two, helmed by the conference’s leading Coach of the Year candidate Kyle Smith, who has turned a 17-17 team last year into a conference title contender. They don’t stand atop the Pac-12 podium, but they have an argument for the gold medal after winning both down-to-the-wire matchups with No. 6 Arizona.

Life on the road has become a smooth ride for UCLA. After a 2-4 start in true road games, it has won three in a row beyond the walls of Pauley Pavilion – most recently, a pair of critical finishes in tight contests against Stanford and California.

For junior guard Lazar Stefanovic, that means the team will need to pick up right where it left off with its focus away from home.

“As usual, you’ve got to play together, you’ve got to play as a team, you’ve got to play hard, you’ve got to play smart,” Stefanovic said. “And you’re not allowed to, on the road, make certain mistakes that you maybe can let yourself make at home.”

Back in December, when UCLA lost to both Cal State Northridge and Maryland in its own house, Cronin forced his players to wear only shells in practice, stripping them of their blue and gold jerseys.

The Bruins didn’t arise from their downtrodden state, falling in five of their next six games.

But now they need a sprint at the end to salvage a marathon season. Time will tell if the treadmill was enough motivation.

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Jack Nelson | Sports senior staff
Nelson is currently a Sports senior staff writer. He was previously an assistant Sports editor on the softball, men's tennis and women's tennis beats and a contributor on the men's tennis and women's tennis beats.
Nelson is currently a Sports senior staff writer. He was previously an assistant Sports editor on the softball, men's tennis and women's tennis beats and a contributor on the men's tennis and women's tennis beats.
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