Arizona St.-UCLA Preview
Being the Pac-12 regular-season champion certainly didn't get UCLA the draw it was looking for as the top seed in the conference tournament.
The 21st-ranked Bruins look to prove their fourth regular-season title in eight years was no fluke when they play their first game of the Pac-12 tournament Thursday against an Arizona State team that has given them all kinds of trouble this season.
The ninth-seeded Sun Devils (21-11) advanced to the quarterfinals with an 89-88 overtime win over eighth-seeded Stanford on Wednesday.
The Bruins (23-8) begin what they hope will be a deep tourney run after winning five of six to close the regular season. Led by a pair of freshmen, they pulled out a 61-54 victory at Washington on Saturday and clinched the Pac-12 title when Utah upset Oregon moments later.
Shabazz Muhammad - a conference player of the year candidate - led the Bruins with 21 points, while Jordan Adams added 17.
"We just want to take it one game at a time," coach Ben Howland said of the tourney. "We hope it becomes three games in three nights, but we've got to get past our first opponent."
That doesn't appear to be an easy task against the Sun Devils, who have matched up well with Howland's team in the previous two meetings.
Arizona State outscored the visiting Bruins by 12 in the second half on the way to a 78-60 victory Jan. 26 before UCLA needed overtime to fend off the Sun Devils in a 79-74 home win Feb. 27.
Carrick Felix, who had 19 points and 12 rebounds Wednesday, will try to put together another big game against the Bruins' frontcourt. The senior forward has averaged 19.5 points and 14.5 boards in the two meetings.
Guard Jahii Carson scored a career-high 34 - the most by a freshman in tournament history - on 14-of-22 shooting to lead the Sun Devils to the quarters.
"I just try to come up big on big stages," Carson said. "I know my teammates look a lot for me to create for them and create for myself, and I try to go out there and make big plays."
Arizona State may need at least one more win to seal an at-large berth in the NCAA tournament after losing four straight and six of eight to end the regular season.
Muhammad and Adams have done all they can in the two meetings, combining for 37 points on 15-of-32 shooting in January and 43 while hitting 15 of 28 from the field last month. The Bruins, though, will try to give the freshman standouts more help this time around.
Kyle Anderson, another freshman, provided a spark with 21 points and 15 rebounds in the last meeting, but he's totaled eight points on 4-of-13 shooting in his last two games overall.
UCLA, which has won five of six in this series, shot 38.4 percent from the field - well below its 45.8 mark for the season - in the two meetings.
The winner will move on to play No. 18 Arizona or Colorado in the semifinals Friday.