LOS ANGELES -- The Pac-12 tournament this season is a crapshoot, so what better place to play it than in Las Vegas?
The top-seeded UCLA Bruins (23-8) will join their conference counterparts in Sin City, where the wide-open conference tournament will be played at the MGM Grand Garden Arena. It is the first Pac-12 tournament to be held in Las Vegas, ending an 11-year run at Staples Center.
It brings the Bruins and their competitors to a city known for its bright lights and no shortage of entertainment options for all ages. But for UCLA, which won’t play until Thursday at noon against the winner between No. 8 seed Stanford (18-13) and No. 9 Arizona State (20-11), don’t expect any “Hangover” or “Swingers”-type hijinks. This is a business trip.
“It’s the same old, same old,” Bruins coach Ben Howland said. “We’re very structured with our time. Our guys aren’t going to be running around hanging around in casinos.”
Howland said he has one simple rule for the team regarding gambling: “If you’re 21, you can pull a lever. If you’re not, you can’t.”
The Bruins will be hoping the wheels all turn up 7’s for them as they try to add a Pac-12 tournament title to the regular-season championship they clinched Saturday with a victory over Washington. History would appear to be on UCLA’s side. The last time the Bruins won the regular-season title, in 2008, was also the last time they won the Pac-12 tournament.
But repeating that feat won’t be easy in a parity-filled conference. The last week of the regular season reinforced the notion that any Pac-12 team can beat another on any given night. No. 11-seeded Washington State and No. 10 Utah join Stanford as the only conference teams bringing a win streak into the tournament.
UCLA, California and Oregon, the top three seeded teams, were a combined 1-4 the final week of the season. Utah, Washington State and Oregon State, the three lowest seeded teams, were 5-1. For the Bruins, who wear the target of regular-season champions, that means they can’t afford to overlook any opponent.
“There are no easy games out there," freshman Kyle Anderson said. "Everybody is tough and we’re going to get everybody’s best since we’re UCLA. Everybody wants to beat us so we have to bring it ourselves, too.”
That hasn’t always been easy for this young team. The Bruins have played well in big-game situations, but have had some notable face-plants along the way as well. Last week at Washington State, for instance, the Bruins looked as though they were playing underwater during a 73-61 loss to the Cougars.
The players say they will be focused this week because there is something on the line. Not only can the Bruins win the conference tournament, but they can also improve their seeding for the NCAA tournament, and perhaps get placed close to home.
“Our goal obviously is to win the conference tournament, and I think if we did that it would give us a good chance to be seeded in the West,” Howland said. “I’m more worried that we get seeded closer to home than I am if we get 4-5-3-6, whatever we are.”
Minimizing the distractions will play a major role. Shabazz Muhammad, UCLA’s leading scorer, is from Las Vegas, and he knows all about the trouble lurking around every corner. He said his advice to his teammates would be to just stay in the hotel.
“There’s a lot going on in there,” Muhammad said. “It can be a Sunday night, and there could be people there, drunk people there, and people doing stupid stuff.”
USC players Dewayne Dedmon and James Blasczyk are suspended indefinitely from the Trojans because of their alleged involvement in a melee in Spokane, Wash., over the weekend. Muhammad said that kind of trouble can easily find you in Vegas.
“Just walk on the street and guys are drunk and you never know what they are doing,” Muhammad said. “That’s why we’re going to try and stay in the hotel. It’s a business trip, like I said, even though it’s Vegas.”
Howland couldn’t be happier about the tournament moving to Las Vegas. Even though it takes away from a slight home-court advantage for his team, he said he sees the move as a real boon to the tournament, which has suffered from low attendance in recent years.
“People love to go to Vegas,” Howland said. “It’s going to be a happening. This ticket in this league three years from now will be one of the most difficult tickets in the country to get.”
That also bodes well for the Bruins. They have faltered in some embarrassing defeats this season, but throughout they have shown the ability to rise to the occasion of big games under bright lights.
There will be plenty of both this week in Las Vegas.