As with everyone who converges on the city, UCLA will be forced to take a gamble next week in Las Vegas.
Simply by showing up, the Bruins will put their perfect record against COVID-19 on the line. At stake is something much more meaningful than a Pac-12 Conference tournament championship.
“I’m just extremely concerned if you have a virus situation and it costs you the NCAA tournament — that’s all I’m saying,” UCLA coach Mick Cronin said Monday. “I’m not anti-conference tournament, I’m just concerned about if something happens because you’re traveling or you’re at a hotel; it’s a big concern of mine.
“I would hate to see anybody in the whole country lose by trying to play these games that, to me, I don’t know how much they matter.”
Atop the Pac-12 standings at the start of the final week of the regular season, the Bruins (17-6 overall, 13-4 Pac-12) are a lock to make the NCAA tournament. ESPN analyst Joe Lunardi, whose job it is to know what the NCAA tournament selection committee will do before it does it, told The Times last week that UCLA was assured of making the 68-team field.
That means more bad than good could come from spending a few days in Las Vegas. The team could suffer an injury. It could endure a bad loss that drops its NCAA tournament seeding. Or, like going bust after asking to hit on a hard 20, it could have a player, coach or staff member test positive for the virus for the first time this season because it’s playing in an unnecessary game.
UCLA’s unbeaten record against the coronavirus has come largely as a result of adhering to strict safety protocols for which the team has shunned its film and locker rooms, instead gathering to watch game footage on the court inside its practice facility while wearing masks and sitting in chairs spaced 15 feet apart.
Players also mostly live together, forming their own protective bubble.
“There’s no need to go out and go have friends because we’re all in the same area, if you know what I’m saying,” freshman guard Jaylen Clark said. “We don’t mess with outsiders and everybody knows what’s at stake. I mean, we’re in March now. We don’t want to get a COVID case and we can’t go to March Madness; there’s too much to risk.”
Cronin half-joked that the start of March and springtime weather would spawn a rash of Las Vegas pool parties, drawing hordes of revelers and an increased risk of transmission spread. The Bruins likely will be confined to the team hotel between games inside T-Mobile Arena, but as with any trip to Las Vegas there will be an element of chance.
“I do think that there is luck involved, right?” Cronin said. “The wrong person gets around the wrong person and you just don’t know.”
The merits of conference tournaments were dubious in Cronin’s mind even before the pandemic brought the basketball season to a halt after the Pac-12 tournament’s opening round a year ago. At Cincinnati, Cronin said he played in the American Athletic Conference championship game for three consecutive years when he was told his team’s NCAA tournament bid was secure before tipoff.
“So it’s like, what the hell are we doing?” Cronin said. “So I kind of have that mentality a little bit. But obviously, look, if we come, we’re going to try to win.”
Leaving Las Vegas without anyone contracting the virus might be the biggest victory of all.
Cronin said there was no change in the status of forward Jalen Hill, who has been away from the team for a month for personal reasons.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.