The old coach had something to say after practice earlier this season, so UCLA seniors Jaime Jaquez Jr., Tyger Campbell and David Singleton gathered around.
All being respectful, they listened intently. Ben Howland was an expert on the subject.
“Look,” Howland told them, “you guys have to do whatever you’ve got to do to get the No. 1 seed in the West.”
It became a mantra of sorts, sustaining them through long winning streaks and refocusing them after a handful of losses. Now it might be just what the Bruins need to get through an emotionally challenging week.
Having clinched the Pac-12 Conference’s regular-season title with two games to go, the fourth-ranked Bruins (25-4 overall, 16-2 Pac-12) could be tempted to take a victory lap that leads to running head-first into a wall inside Pauley Pavilion.
It helps that a few incentives are built into UCLA’s last two home games of the season, Thursday against Arizona State (20-9, 11-7) and Saturday against eighth-ranked Arizona. Extending the nation’s longest active home winning streak, which stands at 23 games, is a priority. So is sending the seniors out as winners in their final home game, even if Campbell indicated Wednesday he’s not sure whether this qualifies as his farewell given his remaining year of eligibility.
But if the Bruins find themselves needing an extra nudge, they can always revisit that mantra.
“Coach Howland talking about the one seed in the West, I think that’s something that really stuck with us throughout the season,” Jaquez said. “When things were getting tough, we had to always remember what we’re aiming for, and it was to get that one seed and just put us in the best position possible to win a national championship.”
Howland knows how the West can be won. He was the last UCLA coach to guide his team to a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, capturing the West Region in 2008. Those Bruins advanced to the Final Four in San Antonio via the first two rounds in Anaheim and the regional rounds in Phoenix.
Securing the No. 1 or No. 2 seed in the West this season would lead to similarly favorable routing. The Bruins almost are assured of starting the tournament in the Sacramento pod regardless of their results the next two weeks, but a strong finish likely would guarantee a spot in the West Region that includes its final games at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.
Staying close to home would limit travel and presumably give the Bruins an edge in fans.
“If we’re going to do that,” Cronin said, “we’ve got to win two this week.”
In its most recent projections, released Tuesday, Bracket Matrix has UCLA listed as the top No. 2 seed, with 23 of the 110 brackets vaulting the Bruins into a No. 1 seed. The top seed most vulnerable to being overtaken is Purdue, which has lost four of its last six games.
In his latest bracket, ESPN’s Joe Lunardi listed Kansas as the No. 1 seed in the West, Houston as No. 1 in the Midwest, Purdue as No. 1 in the East and Alabama as No. 1 in the South.
To have a chance to join that exclusive list, UCLA must go unbeaten against two highly motivated opponents.
Arizona also remains in the running for one of the top seeds in the West even after being stunned by Arizona State last weekend on Desmond Cambridge Jr.’s 60-footer at the buzzer. The Sun Devils probably need to at least split their games against UCLA and USC this week to feel confident about their NCAA tournament chances going into the Pac-12 tournament.
Having fielded congratulatory calls and text messages since his team beat Colorado on Sunday to clinch the Pac-12 title, Cronin knows his players are getting similar compliments that could lead to complacency. Just look at Indiana, Cronin said. Three days after beating Purdue on the road, the Hoosiers came home and went splat against Iowa.
“Obviously,” Cronin said, “the concern for me is I’m a big believer in your emotional gas tank.”
Howland was among those who passed his regards to Cronin. The coaches have known each other since basketball kingmaker Sonny Vaccaro recommended to Cronin, then an assistant under Cincinnati’s Bob Huggins, that he join Howland’s staff at Pittsburgh.
“I told Sonny, ‘You’re trying to help Ben Howland,’ ” Cronin recalled, “and he said, ‘Yeah, I’m very close with him,’ and I said, ‘Well, how about let’s try to help Mick Cronin.’
Cronin remained on Huggins’ staff before replacing him in 2006. He ran into Howland at club tournaments on the recruiting circuit, building an appreciation for the similarly no-nonsense, defense-first coach who guided UCLA to three consecutive Final Fours before his 2013 dismissal led to seven seasons at Mississippi State.
Cronin has welcomed Howland back on campus since the Bulldogs fired him last spring, inviting the 65-year-old to practice and giving him a John Wooden-era UCLA letterman’s jacket. In December, Howland was the honorary captain during a game against Oregon at Pauley Pavilion.
It was no surprise to Cronin what the singularly focused Howland told him after Cronin’s team became the first at UCLA to win the conference’s regular-season title since Howland’s final batch of Bruins.
“He said, ‘You’ve got to win the next two,’ ” Cronin said, “ ‘and get the one seed in the West.’ ”