With the way UCLA has been playing of late, it's looking increasingly unlikely that the Bruins will stay in the West regional for the NCAA Tournament. While the Bruins could still earn a favorable pod placement in the first and second rounds, with the way Oregon, Arizona, and Gonzaga are playing, and with UCLA's recent drop off, it's likely that two of those teams will earn higher placements in the West, which could end up shipping a well-seeded UCLA out of region.
The big question for us is: how significant would that be?
We've long suspected that UCLA has performed significantly better when it has been seeded in the West than when it has been seeded outside the West; after all, it would make sense that playing in front of a favorable crowd without having to travel too far is probably easier than playing in front of a hostile crowd while trying to travel across the country.
Looking at what UCLA has done in the NCAA Tournament since the field expanded to 64 in 1985, though, it's up for debate whether staying in the West regional or simply being seeded very highly is the biggest key for a strong UCLA finish.
UCLA has had six elite finishes in the NCAA Tournament since the field expanded to 64 (basically, any year where the team advanced to the Elite Eight), and each of those six teams was seeded either 1 or 2 in its region (notably, UCLA has not finished any earlier than the Elite Eight in any season where it's been seeded 1 or 2 since the tourney expanded). Now, it's true that five of those six teams were seeded in the West, but that stands to reason, since most every year that UCLA puts together a truly elite season, it earns the right to stay out West. The one outlier is the 1997 team, which was seeded in the Midwest and had to win two games in Auburn Hills, Michigan and one in San Antonio before falling to 1 seed Minnesota in the Elite Eight.
So, let's just put that aside -- there's some strong correlation between UCLA being seeded very highly and making an elite run in the tournament, with some slightly less strong correlation between that and being in the West as well.
Now, what about having a pretty good tournament performance -- in other words, making the Sweet 16?
Things are a little muddled here as well, but we'd probably say it's slightly better for UCLA to stay in the West pod than not. When UCLA has been seeded in a West pod over the last 30 years, the Bruins are 14-3 in those pods, with an average seed of 4.3. When UCLA has been seeded outside of a West pod over the last 30 years, the Bruins are 17-8 in those pods, with an average seed of 5.6. UCLA has made 6 Sweet 16s in its 9 appearances in West pods, and 7 Sweet 16s in its 15 appearances in non-West pods. So, not too much difference there, especially when you factor in that UCLA has largely been seeded worse in the non-West appearances than in the West appearances, but some.
Let's dive a little deeper into this though -- there's the West, after all, which includes places like Albuquerque and Salt Lake City, and then there's California. UCLA is 8-0 in pods played in the state of California since the Tournament expanded to 64. Obviously, that includes UCLA's three trips to the Final Four under Ben Howland, when UCLA was seeded as either a 2 or a 1 in California pods each time, but it also includes 2014's team under Steve Alford, which earned a San Diego pod as a 4 seed in the South. Take that 8-0 record out of the 14-3 cited above, and suddenly, UCLA's record in non-California West pods looks about the same as its record in non-West pods entirely.
So, obviously UCLA has been seeded well each time it's played in California, but it is also 8-0 in those games. In the last 30 years, UCLA hasn't been upset in either of the first two rounds while playing in California. And this year, there is a California pod -- in Sacramento, which was the site of the start of one of UCLA's runs to the Final Four under Howland. Somehow landing in that instead of the other West pod (Salt Lake City) would be a significant aid to UCLA's chances of making a Sweet 16, and potentially advancing farther.
Now, we have no idea how UCLA will finish the season. Assuming the Bruins play more or less the same way they've played over the last 8 or 9 games, UCLA is probably looking at something like another two or three losses (at Arizona, and then some combination of Oregon, USC, or some weird upset) in the regular season. So, we're looking at something like a 26-5 (13-5) UCLA team, which will probably end up 3rd in the conference. With the weakness of the Pac-12 this year, that sort of team is no shoe-in for a top two seed (and frankly might have some difficulty getting a 3 or a 4 given the way the advanced metrics, which will be used in some way by the selection committee, don't seem to like UCLA much this year). So, just in terms of getting into a West pod (which would likely require UCLA landing a top 4 seed somewhere), making some sort of noise in the Pac-12 Tournament seems like a necessity. In other words, we'd have a hard time seeing a 28-6 UCLA team dropped to a 5 seed, but it's easier to see a 26-6 team dropping there.
UCLA still has a lot to play for; with an elite finish and just one more loss before the NCAA Tournament, UCLA might not win the Pac-12 regular season and might not stay in the West, but the Bruins would have a chance at earning an out of region 2 seed. If we learned anything from 1997, it's that it's possible for a UCLA team to make a run from a non-favorable geographical setup.
How Do The Other Pac-12 Contenders Look?
Oregon 19-2 (8-0)
The Ducks, even without Dillon Brooks (who was nursing a foot sprain), put together two very good performances against the Bay Area schools at home last week, smashing a very solid California team and then beating Stanford comfortably by 17. Oregon's defense is playing at an extremely high level, with the Ducks limiting Stanford to just 22 points in the first half of their game last weekend. Payton Pritchard, the freshman guard, has been playing very well for the Ducks, as has Jordan Bell, who had an excellent weekend in general. Then, last night, Brooks came back and the Ducks won an extremely hard fought game on the road at Utah. That was a major test, and the Ducks passed it. It's shaping up to be a great competition in the back half of the conference season between Oregon and Arizona for the league title.
Arizona 19-2 (8-0)
Arizona probably has the easiest run to the regular season title now that the Wildcats have knocked off UCLA on the road. Arizona really has only one more game where it likely won't be favored (at Oregon), and otherwise won't face too much of a challenge, aside from the return trip from UCLA toward the end of the season. Arizona has played consistently great defense all year. The Wildcats got a little bit of a scare from Washington State last night, with the Cougars hanging tough with Arizona for most of the first 30 minutes of the game, but ultimately Arizona was able to pull ahead for a comfortable win. Arizona is a combined 11 points against Butler and Gonzaga, both on neutral courts, from being undefeated right now.
Utah 14-6 (5-3)
Utah has become one of the tougher outs in the Pac-12 in conference play, and last night was no different, with the Utes providing Oregon with an extremely stern test. Ultimately, the Utes just didn't have the players or the offensive firepower to compete with a team as talented as the Ducks for a full 40 minutes, but Utah is obviously one of the most well-coached teams in the league. If Utah finishes the year out strong, which is a good bet with no second games against either Arizona or UCLA, the Utes could certainly contend with UCLA for third in the league.
USC 18-4 (5-4)
USC still feels more like a pretender than a real contender to us, but with the win over UCLA, there's at least a chance that the Trojans right the ship and make a strong run at 3rd place in the league. They have a gaudy non-conference record, but it's inflated (even more than UCLA's) by the weakness of the opponents it played in the non-conference. USC has one of the toughest remaining stretches in the league, with a three-game window where it must play Oregon at home, UCLA on the road, and then Arizona on the road. There's a completely reasonable chance that USC loses all three of those games, as the Trojans, aside from that three-point explosion against UCLA, really haven't figured things out offensively so far in conference.