UCLA Bruins Heading Towards (March) Madness

We are heading into the final week of regular season Pac-10 conference play as we know it, and the Bruins enter into the stretch looking to confirm a reservation in one of the eight NCAA subregions. UCLA is in a more secure position re. March than they were last week, though as gbruin wrote yesterday, and Achilies has mentioned on several occasions in the past weeks, the team has not yet ensured themselves an NCAA berth - even with the result of Saturday's Wildcat hunt. With that said, they are very close to locking it down.

As DCBruins noted yesterday morning, and I commented, the Bruins are highly likely to be in regardless of how the next two weeks play out, but a failure to capture the momentum of the past weeks by pulling out a split (or better) from this trip will put heightened pressure on the squad heading into next week's tourney at Staples Center. That together with the possibility of a one-and-done in that tourney would lead to much sweating and gnashing of teeth in the bruins nation late next week. Thanks to the mediocre state of college basketball (non-Big East division) and the bubble-pool in particular, even an 0-3 finish should allow the squad to partake in some Madness (absent a spectacular combination of blowout losses and severe injuries - knock on wood), albeit with a more unfavorable seed, while spending the final couple of days hoping against a cascade of Cinderellas.

Heading to Washington (RPI-42, KenPom-13) and Washington State (RPI-75, KenPom-48) for this final conference roadtrip of 2011, there is a clear objective for the Bruins in terms of the future of the season: one win, and there is no question that they are in. Looking at those two games, UCLA begin with a Thursday Night ESPN-tilt against the Huskies. The Bruins have been short on luck in Seattle the past few years, and while not factoring in such superstition, the computers share the pessimism. Pomeroy, for example, gives UCLA just a 19% chance of winning in Seattle.

A couple of notes to keep in mind on UW: After starting strong in Pac-10 play (7-1) - despite the early loss of point guard Abdul Gaddy, they have struggled as of late. The Huskies have lost five of their last eight conference games, the three wins coming at home against the Bay Area schools and at conference doormat ASU. Since their win in Westwood on new years eve, Washington has beaten exactly two teams in the RPI Top-100 (in three games - a sweep of Cal and a home victory over Arizona). While they have seven top-100 victories - one more than UCLA now has - they were not accrued in quite the same fashion: Adding an conference play-opening win at USC (RPI-82, KenPom-44) to their premier non-conference victories against Portland (RPI-92, KenPom-101) and Long Beach State (RPI-98, KenPom-87). The Huskies still do hold a 6-1 home record in Pac-10 play, but only the Bay Area wins have taken place since the swoon began, while only the SPTR's kept them by losing by more than 11 to the Cougars on Sunday night.

Honestly, the Huskies are closer to being a bubble team than are the Bruins, but with the advantage of playing the final week in front of a raucous home crowd. As important as this roadtrip is for us, this is going to be a crucial weekend for Washington, and for Romar himself given how the Huskies have failed to close out what was thought to be an automatic spot in the tourney just a couple of weeks ago. Andy Glockner wrote just as much yesterday in his bubble watch column, considering UW to be squarely on the tournament bubble, 

Washington (19-9, 10-6; RPI: 35, SOS: 65)
The Huskies are suddenly in some danger of missing the NCAAs altogether after a horrible showing in a home loss to Washington State Sunday night. The Huskies have two solid wins, two suspect losses and a rapidly weakening overall profile. The visit from the surging L.A. schools this week is now really big.

The Bruins do have a more favorable shot at the Cougars in Pullman on Saturday. Pomeroy seems Wazzu as 3-point favorites, with a 63% chance of knocking off the Bruins. UCLA has yet to lose at WSU under Coach Howland, and while the Cougars are coming off of a huge rivalry win, do have to face a tough USC team on Thursday night before the Bruins come to town. While Pomeroy's computers see the Bruins and Cougars as closely-matched teams over the course of the season (UCLA-40, WSU-48), the RPI does not consider the squads anywhere close to equal (ESPN InsideRPI 2/28: UCLA-36, WSU-75).

Hurting the Cougars in that respect is their weak non-conference slate. To be fair, their December wins over Baylor (RPI-69, KenPom-61) and Gonzaga (RPI-64, KenPom-36) should have given the schedule some credibility, but the fall of both teams as the season has gone on has taken off the luster, leaving just those victories along with a win over Portland as the crowns of the non-conference schedule, along with the Washington sweep and a home victory over Cal as the only victories against teams above #125 in the RPI. If you see the balance of power between the teams more in terms of the RPI's formula, or take more into account WSU's recent skid, having lost five of their last nine games - including losses to Oregon (RPI-141, KenPom-90), Stanford (RPI-139, KenPom-86), and Arizona State (RPI-150, KenPom-135) - then the game looks much more advantageous for the Bruins.

An important thing to keep in mind when looking at the various brackets is what information that particular analyst uses in creating the bracket. For example, the CBS bracket projections are made "as if the season ended today"; i.e., Friday's 20-8 UCLA squad was seeded 10th when compared to other D-1 teams as they stood on that day, without guessing how the final games will affect the records of UCLA or of other bubble teams, and what affect that will have on the S-curve.

Delving into a couple of the current brackets out there, Joe Lunardi's has moved the Bruins up a seed-line in the latest bracket (2/28) for ESPN, resulting in UCLA holding the 8-seed in the East region, playing Old Dominion in a first-round game in Cleveland, with the winner slated to play Ohio State. An additional technically-non bracketology thought from a tWWL blogger after Saturday's game:

UCLA Bruins: Big boy Joshua Smith -- averaging 12.5 in the past 10 games -- is finding his footing as a college player and the Bruins are finding their footing again among the teams that matter. Quietly, UCLA has won 12 of its past 14 and is in position to win the Pac-10 title

Update: After having work left to do entering the past weekend, UCLA has moved up to tournament Lock status In ESPN's Tuesday Bubble Watch update (HT- iphelon). Here is ESPN.com writer Eamonn Brennan's discussion of the Bruins move off of the bubble.

UCLA didn't exactly shoot itself into the at-large stratosphere in the same manner as Kansas State. The Bruins' march to March was, well, exactly that. But UCLA's dominant 71-49 win over Arizona on Saturday punctuated that slow burn with as signature a victory as you can get in the Pac-10 this season. At 21-8 overall and 12-4 in conference play, and with three top-20 RPI wins on its ledger, you could certainly argue that UCLA's résumé is better than Arizona's. What you can't argue is whether the Bruins are going to the NCAA tournament. They are -- even if they get swept in Washington this week. That would be a team with a 12-6 conference record and non-league wins over BYU and St. John's. Yep, that'll do.

Cbssports.com has not updated their bracket since last Friday, and actually dropped the Bruins from a 9-seed to a 10-seed following Thursday's victory over Arizona State, and remaining on the bubble (Michigan State, for one, stayed seeded above the Bruins in his eyes...). CBS bracketologist Jerry Palm has UCLA slated for a first round matchup with West Virginia in Tulsa, with the winner likely to face Texas in the next round (likely to change in his next update, for so many reasons...). Palm's thoughts on UCLA entering the past weekend:

UCLA not only has a chance to pick up a quality win when it hosts Arizona on Saturday, but the Bruins can also pull within a game of first place in the Pac 10.  UCLA's tournament resume is missing quality wins away from home.  That can't be fixed on Saturday, but every good win helps.

Update: CBS published an updated bracket this morning, with the Bruins moving off of the bubble, and up to an 8-seed in the East region. This projection has UCLA playing Utah State in the first round, with the winner facing Ohio State in the Cleveland sub-regional (and a familiar face possibly awaiting that game's victor in the Steve-16).

SBNation's bracketology site - Blogging the Bracket - has been moving the Bruins up the bracket lately, with Monday's updated S-curve showing UCLA as a 7-seed (#26 overall on the S-curve), up from a 9-seed on Friday. With 18 teams between the Bruins and the play-in game participants in this latest analysis, it seems fair to say that the Bruins are as close as possible to a lock by his measure. Their blogger's thoughts on UCLA entering the past Arizona game - then considering the Bruins "In good shape":

UCLA position was damaged slightly by a Sunday night overtime loss at Cal, but thanks to non-league wins over BYU and St. John's, the best a Pac-10 team owns by far, the Bruins should get ready to return to the NCAAs after a year's absence. Ben Howland's team primary goal over the final two weekends will be to earn a share of the Pac-10 crown, with a huge game against Arizona on the slate for Saturday.

Rivals.com has its own bracket projections, with their bracket guru - Mike Huguenin - on Monday projecting the Bruins as the final 7-seed (#28 overall), without predicting ultimate region/opponents. In his daily tournament tracker, Huguenin tiped UCLA on Monday as locks to make the tourney.

Andy Glockner has also moved the Bruins up a seed-line this week, with his Monday bracket update for SI.com placing UCLA as the 7-seed in the Southwest region, playing Virginia Tech in the opening round in Chicago, with the winner advancing to play Notre Dame. With at-large selections falling as far as the 12-seed line in this bracket, there looks to be a pretty big buffer zone for the Bruins in the final two weeks, and Glockner considers the Bruins tourney locks after beating down Arizona:

Locks: Arizona, UCLA

The Bruins joined the Wildcats atop the Pac-10 and also in the lock category after a weekend sweep of the Arizona schools, including an impressive rout of the 'Cats. After that? Uh oh.

In reading that, do keep in mind that this is just one person and his analysis, and that a lot can happen in two weeks. But do also consider this comment in the same article in seeing why the Bruins really do have a favorable path into March Madness - or at least a path free of many obstructions.

As team after team suffered damaging losses last week, the prospective field thinned to the point where there were 18 reasonable candidates for the final 14 spots in the bracket. A look was even needed at a major-conference team with six losses to teams outside the RPI top 100, three of those to 200+ opponents. No, that's not a joke. [Andy is referring to USC here - P]

So while it's very chic to say Team X is in danger of missing the field, the reality is that practically everyone who's anyone is going to make it. What's more, things don't look like they'll tighten up much at all. There still are very few mid-major champs that look like locks to land an at-large should the auto bid not work out, and most of the top 10 conferences have more or less tapped out on prospective bid candidates.

 

...

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