Make no mistake: this week's Pac-12 Tournament is absurdly important.
There has been a lot of talk throughout the UCLA community about whether or not T.J. Leaf should play or sit out, depending on exactly how healthy he is, with the context being that the conference tournament is little more than a formality at this point.
Unfortunately, that's not true. At stake for each of the three teams legitimately competing for the championship (UCLA, Arizona, and Oregon) is the coveted top-two seed in the West Regional. Every Final Four run UCLA has made has come when UCLA is seeded in the West. While it's certainly not impossible for UCLA to make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament out of another regional, there's strong reason to think that being in the West will significantly increase the Bruins' chances of making it to Phoenix.
And while in many years, it might be sufficient for the Bruins to simply win a game or two in Las Vegas to shore up a top seed, that really isn't the case this year. While there's a chance that something truly crazy happens (Gonzaga and the Pac-12 Tournament winner both being 1 seeds, with one being shipped out), the most likely scenario is that the Pac-12 Tournament winner and Gonzaga will be paired as the 1 and 2 seed in the West (in whatever order). More to the point, you're not going to see more than one Pac-12 team in the top four seeds in the West.
What that means is that the winner of the Pac-12 Tournament, more than likely, is going to earn that top-two spot in the West, and the two other contenders will be shipped out as 2 and 3 seeds in other regionals. We say "more than likely" because there's a non-zero chance that if Oregon, Arizona, or UCLA wins out and Gonzaga wins its conference tournament, both the Pac-12 Tournament winner and Gonzaga could earn 1 seeds, with Gonzaga staying West and the Pac-12 winner being shipped out, which would allow another Pac-12 team to stay West to pair with Gonzaga. We don't see that as particularly likely (if anything, at this juncture, it seems more likely that Gonzaga will be dropped to a 2 seed in the West if one of those three Pac-12 teams wins the Pac-12 Tournament in emphatic fashion), but it's a possibility.
Basically, the way we're seeing it, if UCLA loses to USC, they're more than likely going to be in a different regional as a 3 seed. That'll still mean a Sacramento pod, but it will also mean a tough Sweet 16 matchup against some team like Louisville, North Carolina, Florida (ugh), or even Kentucky for the second time. It will also be effectively on the road, in one of either Kansas City, Memphis, or New York. To get to the Final Four, UCLA would have to get through Kansas and Louisville in Kansas City, or Villanova in New York City, or North Carolina and Kentucky in Memphis. None of that is easy.
If UCLA beats USC and loses to Arizona, the situation probably won't change much. Perhaps the Bruins would be more likely a 2 seed in that scenario, but that's about all.
If UCLA gets to the final but loses to Oregon, things could get interesting. Like we said above, there's a non-zero chance that UCLA could end up the 2 seed in the West if both Oregon and Gonzaga are 1 seeds and Oregon is shipped out. But more likely, UCLA would be a 2 seed in one of the other regionals, locked into the same Sweet 16 and Elite 8 scenarios outlined above. Again, UCLA would get a Sacramento pod, which would be great and ensure a relatively easy path to a Sweet 16, but getting through the regional would be really tough.
If UCLA wins out, though, the Bruins have a very good chance of staying West as either a 1 or a 2 seed. On a neutral court, they will have beaten USC (still probably a Tournament team, and one which already beat UCLA once), Arizona (a top ten RPI team that also beat UCLA once), and Oregon (bordering on a top 5 RPI team that also beat UCLA once). Their resume from an RPI and analytics perspective would very likely look quite a bit better at that point, and even haters like Joe Lunardi would probably have UCLA as the 2 seed in the West heading into Selection Sunday. Staying West after running that gauntlet would mean that UCLA would get to play its first two games in Sacramento as a de facto home team, its next two games in San Jose as a de facto home team, and then the final two games in Phoenix as, likely, the de facto home team. The Bruins would never be more than 500 miles from home at any point during their Tournament run, and, if Gonzaga stays West, UCLA would have, in our estimation, one of the most favorable theoretical matchups in the Elite 8 among all regionals.
So it sets up for a really crucial week in Las Vegas. Staying West might quite literally be the difference between advancing to the Final Four and getting stopped short in the Sweet 16. In Ben Howland's three Final Four years, the Pac-12 Tournament never felt this important -- one way or another, entering play, the Bruins looked likely to stay in the West Regional. This year is different, with three elite teams who, critically, haven't played a complete round-robin, leaving some uncertainty about which one of them is actually the best.
This week should settle that, and if UCLA is to make it to the Final Four for the first time in 9 years, coming out on top in Las Vegas will give the Bruins the best shot they've had in that time.