Don't look now, but UCLA has a chance to salvage the season, with a potential NCAA Tournament berth.
What you say?
UCLA's most realistic chance is to win the Pac-12 Tournament, which would get it an automatic NCAA Tournament berth. Given the quality of the conference, that's not a stretch by any means.
I think what really was an indication that UCLA would have a chance in the Pac-12 Tournament was when they essentially out-played Washington in Seattle (until the last 6 minutes). That proved that this team, with how they've developed, was at least as good as the Huskies, who are currently at the top of the conference standings. It clearly indicated that the Bruins would have a considerable edge on the Huskies at home, and more than likely at the Staples Center, the site of the Pac-12 Tournament. Heck, playing at Staples can't be much different than playing "at home" in the Sports Arena, which is just down the street. You'd have to think that UCLA would have more of an "home" advantage in the Pac-12 Tournament than other Pac-12 schools (save USC), and even moreso this season when they are very accustomed to being "at home" in downtown Los Angeles.
The critical element here is seeding for the Pac-12 Tournament. This year, with 12 teams in the conference, the format is different. The top 4 teams in the conference get a bye in the first round. For teams in March, who are fatigued and losing their legs, that's a big advantage. Rather than playing four games on four consecutive days, they only have to play three. This could very well be one of the biggest deciding factors in who wins the conference tournament. It makes it far more of a longshot for a team that isn't seeded in the top four to win the tournament.
For UCLA, it's particularly critical; there has been a marked difference in this team this season when they're fresh and when they're fatigued. The guards, Jerime Anderson, Lazeric Jones and Tyler Lamb, are all averaging over 30 minutes a game this season, meaning: Coming to the end of the season they've played a lot of minutes and they're tired. It also will make a difference in the performance of Josh Smith, who has now shown that his effective, focused version can be a difference-maker. If Smith has to play one additional game for the Pac-12 Tournament, it severely hinders UCLA's chances of actually getting through to the conference final on Saturday and winning.
Currently UCLA is tied for 6th in the conference with Stanford, with a record of 6-5. They are one game behind Oregon and Arizona, who are tied for 4th place at 7-4.
Looking at UCLA's remaining schedule, though, it appears to be favorable. Of course, the games tonight and Saturday against Stanford and Cal are critical, but they are at home. UCLA is then home against USC, goes on the road for a non-conference game at St. John's (One element here to consider: it could be critical that Ben Howland doesn't over-use his players on the road trip to New York to play the Johnnies). It then has a big weekend in the desert against ASU and Arizona, and returns home to play the Washington schools. If, say, UCLA splits this weekend, beats USC, splits in Arizona but sweeps the Washingtons, it will finish 11-7.
That finish could be good enough to overtake either (or both) Oregon and Arizona. Oregon has to play the Washington schools (at home), Bay Areas on the road, go to Oregon State (they lost to them at home already), and then have Colorado (who they lost to on the road) and Utah at home. If you project out what reasonably the Ducks will do, you could see them finishing 10-8.
Arizona has Colorado and Utah at home (they lost to Colorado on the road), goes to the Bay Area, has UCLA and USC at home and then are at Arizona State. It's reasonable to see Arizona going 4-3 to finish out, which would make them 11-7 on the season. That would probably include a home loss against UCLA, and if the Bruins ended up tieing the Wildcats in such a fashion in the conference standings, they'd win the tie-breaker for the conference tournament seeding.
Stanford has a more favorable schedule, actually: At the Los Angeles schools, home against the Oregons, at the Mountain schools and then home against Cal. They could also end up at 11-7, even though they do appear to have hit the skids recently, having lost 4 of their last five.
Colorado, too, is tied for second at 8-3 in the conference, but it's completely feasible for them to hit a late-conference slide, given their upcoming schedule. They are at the Arizonas this weekend, at Utah, home against the Bay Areas, and then at the Oregons.
Of course, this is pretty much folly, trying to predict how the next next 7 conference games will go for all of these teams. In fact, it has to be pointed out that UCLA could very well do better than we're projecting here. But the point is: UCLA is very much in it to get one of the top four conference tournament seedings.
As it's stated above, If they become one of the top 4 seeds, it's completely reasonable to envision them beating any of the teams in the conference on three consecutive days and winning the conference tournament.
The game tonight, against Stanford, is very important. It, at least, guarantees a split this weekend, pushes them ahead of them in the conference, and also gives them a chance against the Cardinal in a tiebreaker scenario for conference tournament seeding. The game Saturday is, of course, huge. If UCLA could get a weekend sweep or, if it loses to Stanford, beat Cal for a split, that would be a boost. If it can be competitive against Cal, too, at home, that would also be a good indication that it could have a very good chance of beating them at Staples in the conference tournament.
Regardless of what UCLA does against Stanford, the Cal game on Saturday is easily the biggest game of the season for UCLA.
Now, this is only talking about UCLA's chances of winning the Pac-12 Tournament, which obviously is their best chance at making the NCAA Tournament. But UCLA is currently 13-10. Given its schedule, it's not completely unfeasible to project the Bruins going 8-0 in its remaining games and finishing at 21-10. A good showing in the Pac-12 Tournament then, like a run to at least the final, would put its season record at 23-11. Its RPI would still be pretty poor, but that kind of record and strong finish (which the NCAA Tournament likes), would definitely put UCLA on the bubble for an at-large berth in the NCAA Tournament.
Yeah, I know it's crazy to even talk about it. But given UCLA's record and upcoming schedule, and the way they've played in the last month, it has to be considered as a reasonable scenario, too.
So, UCLA fans, jump back on the bandwagon -- at least for the weekend.