By Don Wanlass
The UCLA Bruins enter the Pac 12 men’s basketball tournament as the second-ranked team in the nation.
A win in the tournament will almost assure that the Bruins will be the No. 1 seed in the Western Region when the NCAA Basketball Tournament begins March 16. A loss anywhere in the tournament puts the Bruins at the mercy of the selection committee. The Bruins will likely fall to a No. 2 seed in the NCAA and could get sent to one of the other regionals if they fail to win the Pac 12 Tournament.
The Bruins clinched the Pac 12 regular season championship Feb. 26 with a win over Colorado. They cemented their league — and national standing — with an 82-73 win over No. 8 Arizona March 4.
It gave the Bruins a 10-game winning streak headed into the conference tournament, but winning the regular season title and the conference tournament is not always an easy accomplishment for the Bruins. They last did it in 2008.
The Bruins enter the tournament with a significant hole in their lineup. Sophomore guard Jaylen Clark, the Pac 12 defensive player of the year, will miss the conference tournament after injuring his foot against Arizona. Whether he will recover in time for any of the NCAA Tournament remains to be seen.
The injury probably puts senior David Singleton back into the starting lineup. Singleton, who has played in a school-record 156 games, has been the first man off the bench most of the season, averaging 9.4 points a game.
He did start several games in the middle of the season when freshman guard Amari Bailey was injured and he will play a key role throughout the postseason whether he starts or comes off the bench.
The injury to Clark also puts added pressure on first-year players Will McClendon and Dylan Andrews. McClendon sat out all last season with a knee injury. Andrews is a freshman from Windward High here in Los Angeles who has backed up Tyger Campbell at point guard most of the year.
How the Bruins do will depend on how Jaime Jaquez Jr. and Campbell play. Jaquez, the Pac 12 player of the year, is averaging 17.5 points and 8 rebounds a game. He has been carrying the Bruins throughout the 10-game wining streak, averaging 19 points and 9.6 rebounds a game during that stretch.
Campbell provides senior leadership while running the Bruins offense. He averages 12.9 points and 4.7 assists a game.
Coach Mick Cronin has put together another quality team with a chance to do damage in the NCAA Tournament. Cronin believes in an aggressive defense that requires quickness and intensity. If you don’t play defense, you don’t play for Cronin and the players learn that quickly.
The Bruins play with four guards and a big man. At 6-7, Jaquez gives the Bruins a second inside presence, who will probably be asked to shut down the opposing team’s top scorer in the absence of Clark. That means other players will have to pick up some of the slack offensively to keep Jaquez from wearing down.
Fortunately, the Bruins have players able to do that. Bailey, a 6-5 freshman, is capable of taking over a game offensively. Singleton can be a deadly three-point shooter and McClendon and Andrews have shown athleticism and an ability to get to the basket.
A key performer will be forward Adem Bona, a 6-10 freshman from Nigeria. Bona is the Bruins’ last line of the defense and has blocked 50 shots this season.
But he is prone to foul trouble, meaning Kenneth Nwuba and Max Etienne will probably see plenty of action off the bench.
The Bruins open Pac 12 Tournament play at noon March 9 against the winner of the Colorado-Washington game. The semifinals will be March 10 and the championship game will be played at 7:30 p.m. March 11 at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.
The USC Trojans open tournament play March 9 at 8:30 p.m. against the winner of the Arizona State-Oregon State game.
The Trojans are seeded third in the conference behind UCLA and Arizona with a 22-9 overall record and a 14-6 record in conference.
Coach Andy Enfield is 205-127 in his 10 years at USC and the Trojans should make the NCAA Tournament for the fifth time in the last seven seasons. But in March Madness, nothing is guaranteed so the Trojans need to avoid an early exit in the conference tournament.
ESPN’s top bracketologist Joe Lunardi has the Trojans as a 10th seed, but after UCLA and Arizona there are no guaranteed berths in the tournament for Pac 12 teams. The Trojans need to advance to at least the semifinals March 10. They should be able to do that.
They are led by seniors Boogie Ellis and Drew Peterson. Ellis is averaging 18.1 points a game. Peterson averages 14.1
Reese Dixon-Waters, Tre White, Kobe Johnson, Joshua Morgan and Vincet Iwuchukwu also play key roles for Enfield.
Like his UCLA counterpart Cronin, Enfield likes to play a four-guard, one big man lineup. Iwuchukwu could play a major role in the postseason for the Trojans.
He has been brought along slowly during the season after suffering a cardiac arrest episode during a workout last summer. He didn’t play in a game until January and has made only five starts for the Trojans, but at an athletic 7-1, he can impact a game.
Anything can happen in a conference tournament and the Trojans are capable of going on a three-game run and winning the conference championship, guaranteeing themselves a trip to March Madness in the process.
My guess is they have already clinched a spot.
LAKERS MOVE UP: On the night they honored Pau Gasol by retiring his No. 16, jersey, the Lakers moved into the playoff picture for the first time all season. With a 112-103 win over the Memphis Grizzlies, the Lakers moved into ninth place in the NBA Western Conference, meaning that if the playoffs started tomorrow, the Lakers would qualify for the play-in tournament.
They are two games behind the Golden State Warriors and Dallas Mavericks, who are tied for fifth place, and only a game and a half behind the Clippers, who are currently in seventh.
Unlike the Clippers, though, the Lakers are on a role. They have won five of their last seven games and are 3-2 since LeBron James went down with his latest injury.
Against the Grizzlies, March 7, the Lakers used a 30-point, 22-rebound performance by Anthony Davis to win. The Grizzlies were without suspended point guard Ja Morant and injured Brandon Clarke, but still led in the fourth quarter when the Lakers turned up the defensive pressure.
Davis led the way offensively, but four other Lakers scored exactly 17 points, giving the Lakers a balanced attack they haven’t had most of the season.
The Lakers have two more games on this five-game home stand against the Toronto Raptors March 10 and the New York Knicks March 12 before a two-game road trip that takes them to New Orleans and Houston March 14 and 15.
When they return home March 17 against the Dallas Mavericks they might have a better idea of when — if? — LeBron James will be back.
With James on the bench, Davis seems more energized and young players like Austin Reeves and Troy Brown Jr. and newcomers like Jarred Vanderbilt and Rui Hachimura are getting a chance to show what they can do.
It is making the Lakers’ playoff chances look better and better.
GASOL CEREMONY: The Lakers retired the No. 16 jersey worn by Pau Gasol at halftime of the game with Memphis, the team he began his 18-season NBA career with.
Gasol became the 12th Laker to have his jersey retired and second this season, joining the late Minneapolis Lakers star George Mikan, whose No. 99 jersey was retired Nov. 30 in connection with the Lakers’ 75th season.
No Lakers player has worn No. 16 since Gasol left the team in 2014 to sign as a free agent with the Chicago Bulls.
The Lakers acquired Gasol on Feb. 1, 2008, from Memphis along with a 2010 second-round draft choice in exchange for four players, including his brother Marc Gasol, and two first-round draft choices.
During his seven seasons with the Lakers, the 7-foot center and power forward earned three of his six All-Star Game selections, was chosen for the All-NBA second team in 2011 and the All-NBA third team in 2009 and 2010 as he helped the team to championships in 2009 and 2010.
Gasol is among 12 finalists for the Basketball Hall of Fame’s Class of 2023, whose members will be announced April 1 in Houston in connection with the NCAA men’s Final Four.
THE CURSE: The Clippers put the top on their new Inglewood arena March 7. They stopped their five-game losing streak March 5 by defeating the Memphis Grizzlies, 135-129 March 5.
Those are the only good things that have happened to the Clippers since they signed Russell Westbrook to fill their point guard hole.
The Clippers were in fourth place in the NBA Western Conference when they signed Westbrook and lost the next five games. They are now in seventh place and would play in the play-in tournament if the season ended today.
You can’t blame it all on Westbrook because the Clippers have been inconsistent all season, but the Clippers have given up 176, 134, 108, 115, 128 and 129 points a game since Westbrook signed as a free agent.
The Clippers may finally adjust to Westbrook and vice versa, but they need to stop this freefall before they spiral right out of a playoff berth.
The schedule is getting lighter for the Clippers who have only four games in the next 11 days and all are at home. That means the Clippers can have more practice time and more rest as they prepare for the home stretch.
Head coach Tyronn Lue needs to use this time to figure out how best to utilize Westbrook within the offense that still should revolve around Kawhi Leonard and Paul George.