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UCLA Basketball: Fighting for a Different Final (Top) Four

Will Joshua Smith #34 continue the dominant performance he showed in Washington State?   (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Will Joshua Smith #34 continue the dominant performance he showed in Washington State? (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
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Every Bruin fan wants UCLA to do well. That should go without saying. We at Bruins Nation hope that Ben Howland can find that touch he lost and UCLA can get into the tournament this year. But that is just it: the Howlers lead with "Howland took us to three Final Fours" but what if Howland leads us to miss the NCAA tournament this year? That will be two out of last three years. As Bellerophon mentioned Wednesday's Bruins Bites we are currently predicted to go the CBI tournament, the tournament for those not good enough for the NIT. The third-tier tournament. That's how far we've fallen.

CBH understands that I think as well. That is why the Bruins need to position themselves to win the Pac-12 tournament. With the exception of the second half at Cal, this team has played hard in the Pac-12, but have they turned the corner? The thing is that it is too late unless they win the Pac-12 tournament and to do that they need to finish in the top four so as to avoid playing four games in four days. Let me quote some other Pac-12 coaches on finishing in the top four in conference:

"The difference between winning three games in three days and four games in four days is dramatic," Colorado coach Tad Boyle said. "I definitely think a top-four seed is something we want to shoot for year-in and year-out. It's a huge advantage." . . .

Reaching the top four is "life or death from the perspective of being able to win the (Pac-12) tournament," Arizona Wildcats coach Sean Miller said.

And let me add with a quote from maybe the key component to UCLA finishing in the top four:

Our goal was to win every home game, to win the Pac-12 outright and to win the Pac-12 tournament," center Joshua Smith said. "We still have chance to win the tournament championship."

The adjusted list of goals now includes making the Final (top) Four ... of the Pac-12 standings.

UCLA needs every advantage it can get. The Bruins' RPI rating has an RIP look -- a mid-major-like 113 as of Wednesday -- so an at-large bid into the NCAA tournament is a nonstarter. . . .

"We had losses to Stanford, Oregon State and Washington where it came down to a couple of plays," Smith said. "We are not in a position to lose any more games."

One of the reasons we have lost those games is free throws woes:

The Bruins shot 50 percent from the line in the first half, 62.5 percent for the game, in a 60-59 loss at Stanford in the Pac-12 opener Dec. 29 that set the tone for UCLA's underachieving conference season. . . .

UCLA shot 47.6 percent, 12.5 in the first half, in a 75-68 loss at Oregon on Jan. 21 in which the Bruins blew a 15-point first-half lead.

Zeek Jones has been the biggest disappointment here. Zeek shot 81% last year from the line. This year he is shooting 72% for the season but only 23-35 (or 65% during Pac-12 play). Jerime Anderson is down to 60% from 69%. This is not a good % for your PGs.

Ironically, UCLA is shooting well from the three point line. This comes in part because they are not forcing shots from there and are playing within the offense:

UCLA's problems at the foul line are all the more frustrating to Howland given the Bruins are leading the Pac-12 in 3-point field goal percentage (42.2) in conference games.

The Bruins have also taken the third fewest 3-point attempts in league play (57), behind only Cal (47) and USC (39). . . .

"No. That's why we're leading the conference," he said referring to the number of attempts.

UCLA hopes for a last ditch run will of course key on Josh. With teams forced to double on Josh, it helps with those outside threes. What keyed Josh's turn around in Washington and led to the problems in the first place?

"He's slowing down a little more offensively and taking his time," UCLA's Howland said.

"He is slowly getting into better condition, which is a key for him."

Smith worked diligently on his conditioning before entering UCLA and made the all-freshman team last year, when he averaged 10.9 points and 6.3 rebounds. His numbers are a little lower this year, at 10.7 and 5.1, after failing to maintain a similar commitment to remain in shape last summer.

"He has to be self-motivated," Howland said. "Last summer he wasn't willing to pay the price. He didn't think it would affect him the way it did."

Tonight UCLA plays Stanford and it will be a chance to see if Smith continues his roll. A brief note on Smith's backup: Anthony Stover. Stover lost his cool in the Washington State game after Brock Motum scored on him and got a flagrant foul. But everyone agrees it was in the heat of the game:

"Motum jawed in Anthony's (face) and Anthony purposely ran the guy over," UCLA coach Ben Howland said. "It was the right call."

Said Stover, "We were jawing back and forth and it got competitive and he's a great player. It was just one moment, it was the heat of the game."

An hour after the game Motum seemed more concerned about the Cougars' poor foul shooting in the second half (50 percent) than getting steamrolled by Stover.

"Just two guys playing hard," Motum said with a shrug.

On to tonight's game against Stanford. Stanford is not playing well recently. And the key is they can't shoot anymore. They have lost four of their last five games and their shooting, especially from three, has been a key reason for those losses. In those losses, they have shot terribly: 25% overall/25% from three, 38% overall/13% from three, 35% overall/15% from three, and 40% overall/24% from three. So, in other words, their best game from downtown of late was a 25% effort. This seems to cry out for a zone, right? The zone not only worked last weekend against Washington State but also in the first game against Stanford. Before the Washington game Peter Yoon wrote:

The Bruins had some success with a 2-3 zone against Penn, Richmond and in a loss at Stanford, but Howland has used it sparingly since and it's been pretty much nonexistent the past two weeks.

That zone won the Washington State game and should come back some tonight against a Stanford team that is having trouble shooting.

I wrote an earlier preview of Stanford here, some things have changed. Dawkins has decided to play talent over experience. Sophomores like Powell and Huestis are playing now over guys like Zimmerman. More importantly, Stanford has struggled from three.

But the bottom line is this is a game UCLA should win. UCLA needs to win this to keep its chance to be a top four seed in the Pac-12 tournament. As CBH said:

UCLA coach Ben Howland repeated a statement he made before the conference season started - the only way the Bruins are sure to make the NCAA tournament, given their non-conference losses, is to run the table at Staples Center.

"We, obviously, have to win the tournament," Howland said.

Go Bruins.