The UCLA Bruins (22-7, 12-4 Pac-12) have won six of their last seven games, including a home sweep of the Arizona schools that propelled them into a first-place tie in the Pac-12 standings.
The wins over the Sun Devils and Wildcats lifted the Bruins back into the AP poll at No. 23 in the nation. The ranking is the first for UCLA since suffering a loss to Oregon in mid-January, and has put the Bruins back into the discussion for a favorable seed in the NCAA Tournament.
But all of that will be for naught unless UCLA can close out its last two regular season games this week. The Bruins make the dreaded road trip to the Evergreen State to battle the Washington State Cougars (11-18, 2-14) and Washington Huskies (16-13, 8-8) with the conference regular season title on the line.
The first of the two games is on Wednesday night in Pullman, Wash. at Beasley Coliseum, a venue that might as well be called Pauley Pavilion North. UCLA has not lost at Washington State since the 1992-1993 season, a streak of nearly 20 years that is truly remarkable given the difficulty of traveling to the Palouse.
For reference, consider the fact that Shabazz Muhammad, Kyle Anderson, Jordan Adams and Tony Parker were all born after the Bruins’ last loss in Pullman. That’s just plain nuts.
But in spite of the monstrous winning streak, the games against the Cougs are never easy. Last season, the Bruins trailed by five points at the half and needed a late second-half rally to sneak past Wazzu, 63-60. In 2010-2011, UCLA went down by 13 at halftime before storming back to force overtime, eventually winning it in extra time, 58-54. And coming off a huge win like the one last week against then-No. 11 Arizona, a date with Washington State is the definition of a trap game.
Granted, both the 2010 and 2011 WSU teams were better than this year’s 11-18 squad (which the Bruins already beat by 14 points in Los Angeles). But that doesn’t alter the urgency of tomorrow night’s meeting, as the stakes couldn’t be higher for Ben Howland’s bunch. If UCLA can come out focused and play team basketball, the Bruins should be able to put away the Cougs and set up an epic season finale showdown in Seattle.
On Saturday, UCLA will face off with Washington, potentially for an outright Pac-12 title (if Oregon falls to either Colorado or Utah this week). The Bruins beat the Huskies at the buzzer last month at Pauley, so the rematch at Alaska Airlines Arena has all the makings of a instant classic. But unlike the series with Wazzu, UCLA has been hard-pressed to pull out a win on the road at UW in recent years.
In fact, the Bruins haven’t won in Seattle since the 2003-2004 season, a streak of eight straight years that included a 29-point embarrassment in 2010. To frame just how difficult it’s been for UCLA, note that all three of Howland’s Final Four teams fell short in the Huskies’ house.
However, if there were a season to get over the hump, this would be it. Washington’s normally unflappable home court advantage has been far less fierce in 2013, as the Huskies have a 10-6 record at AAA this year. Among those six losses are head-scratching outcomes versus Albany (21-10, 9-7 America East), Nevada (12-16, 3-11 MWC) and Utah (11-17, 3-13 Pac-12). None of that will matter when the teams take the floor on Saturday, but it’s still important to be aware of. UW has shown serious vulnerability this season, which should have the Bruins licking their chops after an assumed victory over Wazzu.
If all goes as planned, UCLA will head back to the Southland with a Pac-12 title and the No. 1 seed for next week’s conference tourney in hand. Maybe it’s just wishful thinking, but the Bruins seem to be peaking at the exact right time for a run through March Madness. And it all begins tomorrow night in Pullman.