Underachieving UCLA down, but not out

LOS ANGELES -- The UCLA basketball team hasn't yet given up hope.

The Bruins are disappointed about where they stand going into the final two weeks of the regular season and know that winning the Pac-12 regular season title would require a minor miracle at this point, but they still feel that all is not lost.

The Bruins (15-12, 8-6 Pac-12) were picked to win the Pac-12 this season, but in order to do that would need to win all four of their remaining games and have both California (22-6, 12-3) and Washington (19-8, 12-3) lose their three remaining games while Colorado (18-8, 10-4) would have to lose at least twice and Oregon (19-8, 10-5) and Arizona (19-9, 10-5) would have to lose at least once each.

A minor miracle indeed, but hope comes in the form of the Pac-12 tournament that looms after the regular season finishes. Win that and UCLA would go to the NCAA tournament.

"It’s pretty deflating, but the season is not over yet," guard Tyler Lamb said. "As a team, I think we underachieved this year. I don’t think anybody would disagree, but the season is still going. We still have to get some wins. We can’t look back and dwell on the past right now because we’re still in season."

With elimination from the Pac-12 race almost inevitable, the Bruins must now focus on finishing among the top four in the conference in order to secure a coveted top-four spot in the Pac-12 tournament. The top for teams receive a bye in the opening-round, everyone else would have to win four games in four days in order to take the tournament title and that has never been done.

"We know we have to dig deep now and try to get some wins before the Pac-12 tournament and come out and play our hearts out in that tournament and see what happens," forward Travis Wear said. "[Coach Ben Howland] gave us the statistics of how many teams have won four days in a row and it’s not very good, so we know we have to try to get a top seed."

That road begins Thursday night on the road. The Bruins play at Arizona State at 5:30 p.m. Pacific to kick off a string of four must-win games. The road has not been kind to UCLA, which is 2-6 in true road games this season and 2-8 away from home against Division I teams.

But Arizona State is as good a team as any to help get the ball rolling. The Sun Devils (8-19, 4-11) have lost five of their last six games and have yet to defeat a Pac-12 team with a winning conference record. They scored eight points in the first half Saturday against Washington State and are 3-10 since dismissing leading scorer Keala King from the team in January.

Trent Lockett is the team's current leader with 13.1 points and 5.9 rebounds per game and Carrick Felix is the only other player averaging in double figures scoring with 10.1. But even though Arizona State is in the midst of it second consecutive 19-loss season, the Bruins know they can't afford to take them lightly. Last year, the Sun Devils took UCLA to overtime in Tempe.

"To be honest, we can’t overlook them," UCLA guard Lazeric Jones said. "The last time we were there, they took us down to the wire. That’s something I’ve been thinking about. They play really good at home and regardless of what their record is—last year they didn’t have a great record and still came out and gave us a hell of a game."

When the teams met Jan. 7 at the Honda Center, it wasn't much of a contest. Joshua Smith and Travis Wear dominated the inside against Arizona State's zone defense as UCLA posted a 75-58 rout. The Bruins could certainly use another game like that as they try to build some momentum for the Pac-12 tournament.

"All our games are important leading up to the Pac-12 tournament just with seeding and trying to get at least fourth place to get at least a fourth round bye," Smith said. "That’s all we can really go for. You never know what's going to happen, but it our position right now, we only have two weeks is not enough time to jump up to the top two or anything like that so we’re going to try and win the rest of our games and see what happens. There’s still the Pac-12 tournament. I mean, our season is not over so we still have something to look forward to."