It was a sneak peek that left some UCLA basketball fans covering their eyes.
A No. 2 seed in the East Region? While Arizona is No. 2 in the West? How does that make any sense?
The Bruins’ projected NCAA tournament seed, released Saturday as part of a bracket preview show, was the only number that didn’t favor the Bruins as they jockey with the Wildcats for the top spot out of the Pac-12 Conference.
Fourth-ranked UCLA entered Saturday’s game against California at Pauley Pavilion with a better national ranking than eighth-ranked Arizona. The Bruins were No. 3 in widely respected college basketball analyst Ken Pomeroy’s ratings, well ahead of the No. 9 Wildcats. And in the metric designed for and supposedly most valued by the NCAA tournament selection committee, UCLA was No. 4 to Arizona’s No. 11 in the NCAA Evaluation Tool (NET).
Heck, the Bruins were looking down at the Wildcats in the Pac-12 standings — residing two games up in the all-important loss column — even after losing their only head-to-head meeting, last month in Tucson. UCLA maintained that position thanks to a 78-43 drubbing of California at Pauley Pavilion that stretched the nation’s longest active home winning streak to 23 games.
Bruins coach Mick Cronin did not hide his disdain for the projections afterward, suggesting they were a result of UCLA’s defection for the Big Ten.
“When we left the Pac-12, it cost a lot of people millions of dollars and there was going to be fallout,” Cronin said. “I even talked to my old AD, Mike Bohn, about it, and I think it’s a direct result of it. Now, I’m not going to put the pieces together for you on how that affects that, but comical — if you ask my one-word answer on that ranking? Comical.
“It was good entertainment. I got a good laugh out of it.”
Staying in the West is a big deal for UCLA and Arizona because it means playing the regional games at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, where either team’s fan base would overtake the place.
What’s the deal with the Wildcats having the inside track to the Strip?
Two words: quality wins. Arizona has more, and the selection committee sent a message Saturday that it clearly values good wins over a lack of bad losses.
The Wildcats have gone 6-2 in so-called Quad 1 games, defined as those involving opponents with a NET ranking of 1 to 15 at home, 1 to 50 at a neutral site or 1 to 75 on the road. The Bruins (23-4, 14-2 Pac-12) have gone a respectable 4-4 in Quad 1 games while amassing a tidy 19-0 record in Quad 2, 3 and 4 games against lesser competition.
Arizona? The Wildcats owned one Quad 2 loss and an additional Quad 3 loss, though the selection committee shrugged in seeding Arizona No. 6 overall to UCLA’s No. 8 as part of the top 16 teams revealed Saturday.
For UCLA to overtake its biggest Pac-12 rival for seedings purposes, the Bruins must win the rematch against the Wildcats on March 4 at Pauley Pavilion. The Bruins also probably can’t stumble against Arizona in the Pac-12 tournament, which would serve as a tiebreaker should the teams meet each having one win against the other.
UCLA also can’t absorb a bad loss. Missing reserve center Kenneth Nwuba (left hip) and backup forward Abramo Canka (illness), the Bruins still had more than enough against overmatched Cal.
The first possession was telling. UCLA missed three shots and grabbed the rebound every time, finally scoring on Jaime Jaquez Jr.’s put-back. Soon the Bruins were ahead 12-0 and it felt like the rest of the game was just going to be details.
Jaquez gave himself a nice birthday present on the day he turned 22, tallying 20 points and eight rebounds in only 26 minutes. Meanwhile, Amari Bailey bounced back in a big way from his benching against Stanford two nights earlier, the freshman guard collecting 16 points to go with a career-high nine rebounds, three assists, two blocks and two steals.
As far as the Bruins’ seeding goes, Cronin said it wouldn’t determine the fate of his team.
“A couple of years ago, we proved your seed doesn’t matter,” Cronin said, referring to his team going from the First Four to the Final Four as a No. 11 seed. “You’ve got to be playing well at the right time, you’ve got to be healthy, you’ve got to be committed to playing good basketball. It bears out every year in the tournament too.”
One Bruin acknowledged earlier this week that he would peek at the bracket preview. At the same time, David Singleton pointed out the folly of it all, so many games left to play and so much movement left to make for teams trying to position themselves for the games that matter.
Where is UCLA in the bracket as of the middle of February? Does it really matter?
“Ask us in March,” Singleton said.