Reporting from Tempe, Ariz. – There is simplicity to UCLA’s season at this point.
“It is spring break or the NCAA tournament this season,” forward Nikola Dragovic said.
This moment has been coming for weeks, months even. But the reality check moment followed a 56-46 loss to Arizona State at Wells Fargo Arena Saturday, UCLA’s last game before the Pacific 10 Conference tournament.
A national television audience may have got a glimpse at what kind of tournament this will be.
The Sun Devils scored the first 13 points, then meandered. UCLA cut the lead to five, 35-30 with 16 minutes 49 seconds left, then went gently into that sweet Arizona night, losing for the third time on a team’s Senior Day, including their own.
The next step is easy, and a doozy. The Bruins win the conference tournament or start working on next season. UCLA opens the tournament at Staples Center against Arizona at noon on Thursday.
“The last few years, we went into the tournament trying to improve our seeding,” said Dragovic, who had 15 points. “I’m not sure this has sunk in with the young guys yet, but this is the end if we don’t win.”
There are many in the Pac 10 who may feel the same, possibly even for Arizona State, which has won eight of its last 10 games.
The Sun Devils started Saturday with some March Madness, holding the Bruins scoreless until Tyler Honeycutt’s dunk with 15:36 left in the half.
Eric Boateng, their 6-foot-10, 257-pound center, carried that forward, having his way with whomever was in his way. He finished with 16 points and 14 rebounds, six of which were offensive.
Freshman “Brendan Lane got a rude awakening about what it’s like to play against a really good player,” Howland said. “Boateng absolutely outmuscled him because he outweighs him by probably 55 pounds.”
But the second-place Sun Devils were unable to kick sand in the Bruins’ face and hardly seemed the poster children for an at-large spot for the NCAA tournament after the fast start.
Arizona State (22-9 overall, 12-6 in conference play) shot only 41% from the field. The Sun Devils were five of 23 on three-pointers.
Howland, though, was ready to lobby for the Sun Devils.
“I think Arizona State and California should be in” the NCAA tournament, Howland said. “Washington is probably on the bubble, but they are a team that is hot right now.”
The conference could face a chore in getting a second team into the NCAA tournament should regular-season champion California fail to win the conference tournament. The Pac 10 has a 2-13 record against teams currently ranked in the top 25.
UCLA (13-17, 8-10) doesn’t have to impress the selection committee, merely win. The only chance of the Bruins avoiding their third losing season since 1947-48 is to reach the NCAA’s Sweet 16.
“We’re back to 0-0, like everyone else,” said guard Malcolm Lee, who had 15 points. “It doesn’t matter what you’re preseason ranking was. It doesn’t matter if you were the conference champion. It’s a new season.”
The Bruins displayed Saturday what has hampered them during the “old” season. Their defense was leaky. They were outrebounded 39-30. Their core players logged too many minutes. They shot 33% from the field and made only four of 20 three-pointers.
Still, back-to-back three-pointers by Dragovic had the Bruins down by five.
“Then I called timeout and went back to the zone, stupidly,” Howland said.
Arizona State’s Jamelle McMillan sank a three-pointer and Boateng followed that with a power move for a layup.
It left the Sun Devils ready to make a case for themselves. “Our team has played very good basketball for the last eight weeks,” Coach Herb Sendek said.
It left the Bruins embracing a new role.
“We’re the underdogs,” Dragovic said. “Maybe that’s our chance. I don’t think anyone expects anything from us.”