UCLA hottest in Pac-12, needs big finish to save Mick Cronin’s NCAA tournament streak

  • UCLA head coach Mick Cronin looks at forward Shareef O'Neal (22) during action against Long Beach State on November 6, 2019, at Pauley Pavilion in Los Angeles. (Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

LOS ANGELES — Mick Cronin’s streak of consecutive NCAA tournaments could become a real double-digit doozy.

The UCLA coach who made it nine straight times at Cincinnati before his arrival in Westwood may be on the verge of stretching it to 10 thanks to the Bruins’ improbable late-season surge.

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UCLA (17-11, 10-5 Pac-12) has won five games in a row and nine of 11, going from an afterthought to a strong contender.

“Still a lot of work to do and their margin for error is really small,” CBS analyst Jerry Palm said Monday, “but this run of play, especially with the quality wins they’ve gotten, gives them an opportunity, if they continue to play well, to possibly end up in the tournament.”

Palm included UCLA among his teams “on the bubble,” a significant change from a week ago when he said “I haven’t given them a moment’s thought.”

ESPN analyst Joe Lunardi listed UCLA among his “First Four Out,” only a few spots behind USC, which is among Lunardi’s “Last Four In.” That could attach extra significance to the March 7 meeting between the Bruins and Trojans at the Galen Center.

In the span of a week, UCLA rose 25 spots to No. 76 in the NCAA Evaluation Tool, or NET, that is one metric the NCAA tournament selection committee uses to pick and seed teams. The big jump was mostly a result of the Bruins’ 70-63 victory over then-No. 18 Colorado on Saturday.

That gave UCLA its fifth Quadrant 1 victory, the most desirable kind for NCAA tournament selection purposes because they can come only against teams that have a NET ranking of 1 to 15 at home, 1 to 50 at neutral sites or 1 to 75 on the road.

UCLA has two Quad 1 games left, Saturday at home against Arizona and the regular-season finale at USC. The Bruins’ home game against Arizona State on Thursday is considered a Quad 2 game because the Sun Devils are ranked No. 41 in the NET.

The NET rankings were used for the first time last season and did not become a foolproof measure of a team’s likelihood of receiving an at-large bid to the tournament. North Carolina State, with a NET ranking of No. 33, and Texas, with a No. 38, both were left out of the tournament while St. John’s, with a No. 73, received an invitation.

“Basically, your NET ranking by itself is meaningless,” Palm said. “It’s not decisive, they took one team that was 40 spots lower than the team they left out. So it doesn’t matter. Your NET ranking of your opponents is more meaningful than your own because that’s how they sort out the Quadrants.”

Palm added that there’s a further subclassification among Quad 1 victories, noting that three of UCLA’s came against teams headed for the tournament — Colorado, twice, and Arizona — and two against teams headed nowhere — Washington and Oregon State.

Winning the Pac-12 regular-season title or finishing on a hot streak won’t enhance the Bruins’ chances, per se. Conference records aren’t listed on the team sheets considered by the tournament selection committee and how a team fared in its last 10 games was long ago eliminated as a criterion.

The Bruins have not lost since adopting the mindset two weeks ago that every game is an elimination game.

“It’s like win or go home right now for us,” junior guard Chris Smith said after the victory over Colorado. “We obviously all want to get into the NCAA tournament.”

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Maybe the best way to ensure entry is to ignore the gobbledygook of the NET and the Quads in favor of something much simpler.

“If we keep winning,” Cronin said, “it won’t be a problem.”

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