UCLA is now 2-2 in the Pac-12, coming off a solid performance over the weekend that garnered it two conference wins at home against Stanford and California.
It was a much-needed relief from the 0-2 start on the Mountain road trip, and it gives us a little more data in trying to project how this team will perform the rest of the season.
Here are some factors that could have a big impact on the remainder of UCLA’s season:
-- UCLA didn’t do well on the road in the mountains. It didn’t have a great deal of experience on the road, with Alabama being the only true road game on its schedule up until that time. It’s not radical to assert that this UCLA team – like every team in the conference and probably the country – is going to be quite a bit better at home than it is on the road the rest of the way. The home-court advantage could be more pronounced this season, too, since there is quite a bit of parity in the Pac-12; that is, there are quite a few mediocre to okay teams and, when they play each other, the biggest edge in the game will be who has the home-court advantage. It could very well be a case of a large amount of splitsies in the conference, where the home team wins in many of the two-game conference series. So far, Pac-12 teams are 16-4 at home, and that includes an Oregon State upset over #9-ranked Arizona last weekend in Corvallis. UCLA has seven away games and seven home games remaining on its schedule.
-- UCLA got a little lucky personnel-wise. It faced both Colorado and Cal without either teams having their best player (and it still lost to Colorado), and it played Stanford when it lacked one of its best players. It probably won’t be that lucky with those three teams on the second go-round in the conference. UCLA itself, too, has been on the lucky side of the injury issue, which is vital given how thin UCLA’s bench is. One key injury, though, and the Bruins could be in trouble.
-- Given the short bench and the amount of minutes UCLA players are logging, it’s logical to think that fatigue could be a factor when you get to the second half of UCLA’s conference season.
-- The Pac-12 just isn’t very good. If it were, and there were, say, five teams that clearly were NCAA Tournament teams, it would potentially be very hazardous for UCLA to play each of those five teams twice. But, really, at this point, there are probably only two clear-cut NCAA Tournament teams – Utah and Arizona – and the rest are pretty iffy. If Stanford is the next best team, as it might actually be, this is one of the worst years for the Pac-12 in a while. And then there are some pretty bad teams at the bottom of the conference, like ASU and USC, which give UCLA a good chance of getting three wins right there.
-- The one road trip UCLA doesn’t have this year is to the Washington schools. Among all the conference road trips this year, that might have been the easiest one, with the best chance to win both of those games compared to the other road trips. It also doesn’t play the Arizona schools at home, which would have given UCLA its best opportunity to get a big signature win against a highly-ranked opponent in Arizona.
Given all of these factors, this is how the rest of the season might go:
@ USC, W
@ Oregon State, L
@ Oregon, L
@ Stanford, L
@ Cal, W
Oregon State, W
@ ASU, W
@ Arizona, L
Washington State, W
That would put them at 19-12 overall. It features UCLA finishing strongly, winning 7 of its last 8, which might be a stretch given the fatigue factor but, at this point, it’s the most reasonable scenario.
Without giving away Ken Pomeroy’s premium material, we have to say that our projection is a little more optimistic than his for the remainder of the season. There are definitely a good number of games on the schedule that are hinge games. The games @Cal and @ASU we have down as wins, which is significant, in light of the predominance of Pac-12 home teams winning at a 80% clip. The Cal game, in particular, could be a stretch since the Bears will undoubtedly have Jabari Bird back by Feb. 7th. We also have UCLA beating Colorado at home, when the Buffaloes should have back their best player in Josh Scott. And we have UCLA sweeping the Washington schools at home, while upstart WSU is responsible for two of the four road wins in the conference so far.
Our prediction would also get the Bruins to 11-7 in the conference and probably garner anywhere from a 3rd-place to 5th-place seed in the Pac-12 Tournament. With that kind of seeding you would expect them to win in the quarter-finals and then lose in the semi-finals. That scenario would get them to 20-13 on the season.
That’s NCAA Tournament bubble team territory, and given UCLA’s Tournament resume, on the bad side of the bubble. Without a big non-conference win and, if you go by our projection, without a win over any top 25 team, along with a bad RPI and the Kentucky game still probably resonating with the NCAA Tournament Committee, UCLA would be a longshot to make the Tournament. We could, though, still see a scenario where UCLA is one of the last teams on the bubble, based on name alone.
If this is even close to accurate, it would seem a better-than-anticipated result in the Pac-12 Tournament – like winning the Tournament or beating Arizona or Utah in the semi-final – would be needed to get into the Dance.
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