UCLA's NCAA Seed Prospects

With the regular season coming to an end, here's a look at how UCLA's results in the Pac-10 Tournament could affect their seeding in the Big Dance. What does UCLA need to do to avoid that dreaded #8 or #9 seed?

1. Three weeks ago the Bruins entered their season-defining stretch of schedule where they figured to need to win four of six games to lock up an NCAA Tournament bid regardless of how they performed at the Pac-10 Tournament or how other bubble teams (and dreaded "bid-stealers") fared during their various conference tournaments. In the wake of Saturday's overtime victory at Washington State, and the Bruins having having won those four of six, Jerry Palm removed UCLA from his "fence sitters" page and with the Bruins now ranked #34 in the RPI (just inside the magical top-35 of the RPI where at-large bids have historically been virtually guaranteed), Bruin fans can rest easy this week knowing that regardless of what happens across the college basketball landscape and even if the team is upset at Staples Center on Thursday, UCLA will hear their name called on Selection Sunday.

2. Sure, the Bruins probably locked up their bid by blowing out Arizona, but had the team been swept in Washington over the weekend and then lost in their first game at Staples, they not only would have sweated out getting that bid, they almost certainly would have been an #11-seed or lower (perhaps even having to play one of the "First Four" games) and probably would have been set up for a quick NCAA exit that (combined with the poor end to the regular-season and Pac-10 Tournament) would have left a lingering sense of disappointment for this season even if the Bruins had ostensibly met their pre-season goal of getting an NCAA bid. In short, don't discount the importance of the Bruins climbing back from that 15-point deficit to beat the undermanned Cougars. As I mentioned before, the more games this team wins at this time of the year, the easier it becomes to win even more games in the ensuing stage of the season.

3. Which brings us now to this week's Pac-10 Tournament and how that will impact the Bruins' NCAA seeding. Having locked up the Pac-10's #2 seed with Saturday's win (which then turned into a full two-game lead over third-place Washington when the Huskies lost again at home to USC later that night), the Bruins have a favorable initial draw on Thursday facing the winner of Wednesday night's #7 vs. #10-seed game featuring ASU and Oregon, both of whom UCLA swept this season. ASU comes in having finished the year relatively well in winning three of their last five (with all the wins coming at home) after a 1-12 start to Pac-10 play, while Oregon has lost four in a row after their Knight Court-opening inspired run where they won seven of ten (with the Bruins having handed them two of those three losses). In either case, the Bruins will be expected to win, and should win to get to Friday's night's semi-finals.

4. And this is where UCLA has a bit of an issue in terms of their NCAA seeding. Because of their RPI and resume, the Bruins are fairly well locked in to that 8/9-seed line for the NCAA's (they're currently a #9-seed according to Jerry Palm who almost always predicts virtually the entire field within one seed either way) and that's about the last place the Bruins want to be when the real field is announced. An upset loss to ASU or Oregon might drop the Bruins to a #10-seed, but more than likely they end up a #9-seed. And even a win on Thursday followed by a loss on Friday would probably leave the Bruins no higher than an #8-seed. In either event, the Bruins would be looking at a tough toss-up first round game against a very evenly matched team, and then, if they happen to win that game, a #1-seed in their second round game in a virtual road environment. Imagine UCLA being shipped to Cleveland to play Ohio State or Charlotte to play Duke and you get the idea. In fact, the NCAA's always seems to want to be "cute" by creating interesting potential match-ups in the second round, and if the Bruins do end up as a#8 or #9-seed, I would expect the selection committee to send the Bruins to Tulsa for potential second round rematch with Kansas or match us with Pittsburgh so Howland could potentially get schooled by his former assistant. None are particularly attractive scenarios, even for some fool-hardy BRO's who crave another shot at Kansas.

5. So what it comes down to if you have any hope of the Bruins surviving the first weekend of the NCAA's, is basically you want the Bruins to avoid their expected script (win on Thursday, lose on Friday) at all costs. Either lose on Thursday and hope to fall to a #10-seed, or this team had better win two games at Staples and make it to Saturday's final. Two wins, and the Bruins will almost certainly play their way up to a #7-seed and that's quite possibly the best scenario for this weekend, because if you're a Bruin fan and want the best shot for this team to make the Sweet 16 (absent taking advantage of some upsets ahead of it), you want to count on the NCAA's being "cute" and pairing UCLA to face San Diego State in the second round (a classic "test the legitimacy" regional match-up). In fact, the Bruins basically want to stay glued to the Aztecs in virtually any scenario (whether UCLA is a #6 through a #10-seed), because being paired in the same pod as San Diego State means three things: (1) the Bruins will play their first two games in Tucson (their shortest trip for any 1st/2nd round games), (2) a second round game against San Diego State (the most overrated of any #1-3 seeded team), and (3) if the Bruins do manage to advance from there, a Sweet 16 game in Anaheim (and if the Bruins do make it to the West Regionals in Anaheim, all bets are off as to their ceiling).

6. In fact, winning two games at Staples might even be more advantageous than winning the whole tournament for UCLA. If the Bruins do indeed win all three of their games, they'd probably shoot all the way up to a #6-seed (a #5-seed would be possible, but unlikely), but that could mean missing San Diego State and probably getting shipped to another regional. Meanwhile, even if San Diego State wins the MWC Tournament, I doubt they end up with a #1-seed (too bold a step for the selection committee when the Aztecs resume doesn't necessarily jump off the page), but the selection committee will give them a #2-seed with protected game sites, so they'll have a Tucson to Anaheim path to the Final Four (which is exactly what the Bruins want). If San Diego State is upset before reaching the MWC final, they could get docked to a #3-seed (in which case, if you're UCLA, you want to win the Pac-10 Tournament and get a #6-seed). So other than rooting for UCLA this week, keep a very close eye on the Aztecs, as you're going to want the Bruins to end up in their pod. As strange as it sounds, the best possible outcome for this weekend could be UCLA winning two (but not a third game), while San Diego State wins the MWC Tournament.

7. So how does UCLA win on Friday? Facing the winner of Washington vs. Washington State, the Bruins are looking at a very tough second game regardless. The Huskies need only to beat Washington State to lock up an NCAA bid for which they're still very much on the bubble for, but present a match-up nightmare for UCLA. Meanwhile, the Cougars seem to own Washington this year (beating them twice with neither game particularly close) but they probably need two wins at Staples to lock up a bid, so they'd throw everything they have at us (including Klay Thompson, who figures to re-join the team in time for their game against the Huskies) in what would be another must-win game for them. To me, the answer is going to continue to revolve around the Bruins ever-improving defense, and how many Bruins fans make it to Staples to support a team that pretty clearly feeds off crowd-support. If ever there was a Bruin team that needed a home-court advantage to keep its focus, it's this young, inexperienced, and immature version, that has somehow managed to raise our expectations so that we're even talking of winning multiple games in March all the same. So do what you can, wear blue, and show up. As it turns out, these could be the Bruins final games at Staples for a year as well...

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