UCLA has already clinched a share of the Pac-10 title for the second consecutive season.
But like last year, the second-ranked Bruins would like to win the conference championship outright, something they can do when they visit No. 13 Washington State on Thursday night.
The surprising Cougars, who have never won the Pac-10, are the only team standing in the way of an outright title for UCLA. Washington State is second in the conference and if it wins both of its games this week and the Bruins lose Thursday and then again on Saturday at Washington, the teams would tie for the crown.
Everything could be solved after Thursday if the Bruins (25-3, 14-2) continue their form against the Cougars (23-5, 12-4). UCLA won 55-52 at home on Dec. 28 in the teams’ first meeting and has won the last five games in the series. Overall, the Bruins have won 13 straight on the road against the Cougars and lead the all-time series 90-13.
“I think there’s going to be a lot energy in the building Thursday night,” Washington State coach Tony Bennett said. “That might be the understatement of the season.”
UCLA wrapped up a share of first place by beating Stanford 75-61 on Saturday, winning its seventh straight conference game and finishing undefeated at home for the first time since 1974-75.
“It’s only a share,” UCLA guard Arron Afflalo said. “You want to win outright and you do that by playing as hard as you can against the next team. We understand the importance of every game now.”
The Bruins have taken care of business in the last two weeks. After receiving a scare from last-place Arizona State in a 67-61 win on Feb. 15, UCLA has won its last three games by at least 10 points while shooting a combined 54 percent from the field.
UCLA is assured of the No. 1 seed in the Pac-10 tournament, which begins next week at Staples Center in Los Angeles. The Cougars, who were picked by the media to finish last, can do no worse than the third seed after their best season in years.
“I laughed when I saw the preseason polls of where they were picked,” UCLA coach Ben Howland said. “You knew they had talent coming back.”
Washington State, which went 11-17 last season and finished at the bottom of the conference with a 4-14 record, has its first winning record in 11 years and first 20-win season since 1993-94, when Kelvin Sampson was coach.
The Cougars are trying to win their first conference title since winning the Pacific Coast Conference in 1941. Their best Pac-10 finish was second in 1982-83.
Washington State is 12-1 at home this season, with the only loss coming in overtime to then-No. 7 Oregon. The Cougars host Southern California on Saturday and need only a split of their last two games to earn the second seed in the conference tournament.
Washington State needs one victory to match the 1940-41 team as the last to win 24 games in a season. That squad finished with a school-record 26 victories, which is in range for the Cougars.
“There are lots of games left,” Bennett said. “The story is not finished yet.”