UCLA road-heavy schedule raises questions about Pac-12 Conference priorities

Ben Bolch
·4 min read
UCLA guard Jaime Jaquez Jr. (4) dribbles past Utah forward Mikael Jantunen (20) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Thursday, Dec. 31, 2020, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
UCLA guard Jaime Jaquez Jr. dribbles past Utah forward Mikael Jantunen during the Bruins' 72-70 victory over the Utes at Pauley Pavilion on Dec. 31. (Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

One might say the Pac-12 Conference couldn’t see the forest for the trees on Oregon’s Matthew Knight Arena court given what it’s asking UCLA to do these next two weeks.

The Bruins won’t get the expected breather after their two-game trip that starts Thursday against Utah and concludes Saturday against Colorado. They also won’t get an additional home game. Now they’ll make a brief stopover at home before hitting the road again to face Oregon in Eugene on March 3.

It will be UCLA’s second trip to play Oregon after the first, in late December, ended without so much as the ball being tossed into the air for tipoff. One game official tested positive for COVID-19 and the others were barred from working because of contact tracing, leading to a postponement.

The Ducks and Bruins then agreed to play twice at Pauley Pavilion before those games were wiped out when the Ducks were forced to pause basketball activities because of their own virus issues.

Now UCLA, which hasn’t been able to play Oregon through no fault of its own, will have to fly to Eugene once again, a trip made all the more irksome after having watched the Ducks play a makeup game against USC at the Galen Center on Monday.

“Well, I wasn’t consulted, so it is what it is,” Bruins coach Mick Cronin said earlier this week when asked about the Pac-12’s rescheduling efforts. “I have no idea who made those decisions. Reasons don’t matter to me.”

A Pac-12 spokesman said the rationale for having the Bruins travel to face Oregon is that it maintained as much equity in home-away balance in the race for the regular-season conference title as possible. If the remaining games are played, Oregon would finish the season with nine home games and nine away games as part of its conference schedule, while UCLA would finish with nine home games, nine away games and one supposedly neutral game against Stanford in Santa Cruz.

“Santa Cruz was not neutral,” Cronin told a reporter who passed along the Pac-12’s justification. “I could care less what anybody says. You were there. When the other team’s playing ambient noise of their fans cheering, the game is not neutral. They can say whatever they want. It’s comedy show; I mean, if that was neutral, then OK.”

Cronin also wasn’t sold on the idea that makeup games are helping the Pac-12 crown a more equitable champion considering that wasn’t the priority before the season. At that time, coaches and officials focused on players’ mental state in the wake of the pandemic and widespread social unrest as part of the Black Lives Matter movement.

“Everything that went on, man, it’s a lot of stuff, not just the pandemic,” Cronin said. “So that was all of our concern. So I’m wondering why now are we so concerned with, we’ve got to make games up. It shouldn’t be about that. It should be about, are the kids mentally and physically OK, because this has been a long grind for them. That’s the way I look at it.”

Squinting hard enough could reveal potential upside to UCLA (16-5 overall, 12-3 Pac-12) playing three consecutive road games before finishing the regular season against USC on March 6 at Pauley Pavilion. The games against Colorado and Oregon would represent so-called Quadrant 1 wins — the most desirable kind for NCAA tournament selection and seeding purposes — should the Bruins prevail.

One or two wins in those situations could bump the Bruins up in seeding when the NCAA tournament brackets are revealed next month. Two losses might leave them shaking their heads about being put in an unnecessary predicament.

“I think it's going to be a challenge, for sure,” UCLA guard Jaime Jaquez Jr. said of piggybacking the Oregon trip onto the one to face the mountain schools, “but it's something we're going to be able to adjust to. And I think that making up this game is good for us to get another game in and hopefully it'll get us more prepared to play USC.”

UCLA TONIGHT

AT UTAH

When: 5 p.m. PST.

Where: Huntsman Center, Salt Lake City.

On the air: TV: Pac-12 Networks; Radio: 570.

Update: The Utes (9-10, 6-9) have lost three consecutive games, though the final moments of their 67-64 setback against Oregon last weekend were hotly debated after Utah guard Timmy Allen was called for what might have been a phantom double-dribble with his team trailing by one point. Utes coach Larry Krystkowiak complained about the call afterward, earning a reprimand from the Pac-12 office. UCLA, which held off Utah, 72-70, at Pauley Pavilion earlier this season, is expected to play a sixth consecutive game without forward Jalen Hill, who is out because of personal reasons.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.