UCLA hoping to blaze easier March Madness path by toppling Pac-12 leader Arizona

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UCLA's Johnny Juzang celebrates in the final seconds of overtime against Villanova
UCLA's Johnny Juzang, center, and the Bruins are pushing for a signature win over Pac-12 leader Arizona on Saturday. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

UCLA fans have been welcomed back to Pauley Pavilion. Now, they just need the Bruins to help them score invitations to tag along to Viejas Arena in San Diego and the Chase Center in San Francisco.

Those would be the most favorable NCAA tournament destinations for UCLA prior to the Final Four if it can overtake Arizona to win the Pac-12 Conference and challenge Gonzaga for the top seed in the West Regional.

It’s a California dreaming scenario that is going to require some wins of change for the team that sits one game behind Arizona in the conference standings. Fortunately for the seventh-ranked Bruins — or unfortunately, depending on how things go — they will face the third-ranked Wildcats twice in 10 days beginning with a rare Tuesday night showdown on UCLA’s home court.

“Definitely should be a fun environment,” Bruins guard Johnny Juzang said Monday of having a large turnout inside Pauley Pavilion for the first time since Dec. 1 after the school's recent loosening of restrictions amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

A sweep of Arizona (16-1 overall, 6-0 Pac-12) would likely vault the Bruins (13-2, 5-1) into first place in the conference while also putting them in position to threaten second-ranked Gonzaga for the top spot in the coveted West Regional. UCLA could also keep the San Diego-San Francisco route if it were the No. 2 seed in the West, setting up a potential rematch with Gonzaga at the Chase Center in the regional championship.

If the Bruins repeatedly stumbled before Selection Sunday, they would likely find themselves having to navigate a less friendly route to the Final Four in New Orleans. In his latest bracket projections, released before UCLA defeated Colorado on Saturday, ESPN’s Joe Lunardi placed the Bruins in Portland, Ore., as a No. 3 seed in the West Regional.

UCLA coach Mick Cronin said predecessor Ben Howland, a longtime friend, used to talk about the importance of staying as close to home as possible in the NCAA tournament. The Bruins never had to leave California before reaching two of their three consecutive Final Fours under Howland, playing in San Diego and Oakland during the 2005-06 season and in Sacramento and San Jose during the 2006-07 season. During the 2007-08 season, UCLA played in Anaheim and Phoenix on its way to the Final Four.

While acknowledging a similar path allowing Bruins fans to attend en masse “would be great,” Cronin said his team’s NCAA tournament locations were the furthest thing from his mind with so many more immediate worries. First up is a budding juggernaut in Arizona, which has been dominant under first-year coach Tommy Lloyd.

Arizona coach Tommy Lloyd talks to guard Dalen Terry during a game against Northern Colorado in December.
Arizona coach Tommy Lloyd talks to guard Dalen Terry during a game against Northern Colorado in December. (Rick Scuteri / Associated Press)

The Wildcats are outscoring opponents by an average of 24.3 points per game while emulating the push-the-pace style Lloyd embraced as a longtime assistant to Gonzaga’s Mark Few. What makes Arizona more frightening than the Bulldogs is its superior rebounding and shot-blocking behind an imposing front line of 7-foot-1 center Christian Koloko and 6-11 forward Azuolas Tubelis. The latter big man could return against the Bruins after sitting out the Wildcats’ 96-71 road romp of California with a sprained left ankle.

Pick any category and Arizona probably leads the Pac-12; the Wildcats are tops in scoring offense (88.7 points per game), field-goal accuracy (50.1%), field-goal defense (36.2%), rebounding margin (plus-9.35), blocked shots (6.7 per game) and assist-turnover ratio (1.58).

“I knew last year when we were playing them that they were going to be a problem this year,” said Cronin, who has gone 4-0 against the Wildcats in his three seasons with the Bruins. “You could just see they were close, they were just a little too young.”

Lloyd supplemented the returning core with impact transfers Justin Kier, Pelle Larsson and Oumar Ballo while further developing the backcourt of Bennedict Mathurin and Kerr Kriisa. Mathurin, a sophomore guard who is averaging 17.5 points and 6.1 rebounds, is a leading candidate for Pac-12 player of the year.

For the Bruins to extend their five-game winning streak over the Wildcats, Juzang must sustain the scoring spree that made him Pac-12 player of the week following a road sweep of Utah and Colorado. The junior guard has propped up his team’s offense by averaging 24.5 points and 6.0 rebounds over his last four games while shooting 56.9%, including 46.7% from three-point range.

Considering that Arizona will be the highest-ranked team UCLA has hosted since beating top-ranked Kentucky on Dec. 3, 2015, slotting the game into a late-night spot on a Tuesday seemed curious to Cronin. The game was initially scheduled for a Thursday in late December before being postponed while the Bruins were on their COVID-19 pause.

“To be honest,” Cronin said, “I would have liked to play them on a Saturday and had ‘College GameDay’ in Westwood.”

If the Bruins beat the Wildcats, they might be able to influence something far more important, dictating when and where they play in March.

Up next for UCLA: Tuesday vs. Arizona

When: 8 p.m.

Where: Pauley Pavilion.

On the air: TV: ESPN; Radio: 570.

Update: UCLA point guard Tyger Campbell has been dealing with a thumb injury that’s hindered his shooting; he had missed eight consecutive three-pointers over three games before draining a critical one to help the Bruins beat the Buffaloes last weekend.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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