The UCLA men’s basketball team that trudged off the floor at the Pac-12 Conference tournament last March wasn’t too dissimilar to the Colorado team that experienced a similar late-season fate a year earlier.
The Bruins were forced to regroup for the NCAA Tournament on the heels of four consecutive losses, including a defeat against lower-seeded Oregon State in the opening round of the conference tournament. A year earlier the Buffaloes were ticketed for an NCAA Tournament berth despite five consecutive losses that also culminated with a quick exit at the league tourney.
Those Buffs, however, were denied a chance at redemption when the 2020 NCAA Tournament was canceled at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Last spring, the Bruins took full advantage of a fresh start in the postseason. And the rest, as they say, is history.
As a No. 11 seed, the Bruins stormed out of the “First Four” round all the way into the Final Four and, with that entire cast returning this season, UCLA once again is a Final Four contender and the heavy favorites in the Pac-12 Conference.
That late slide by UCLA at the end of the regular season began with a loss in Boulder. On Wednesday, the Buffs will see the Bruins for the first time since their postseason run caused a seismic shift in Westwood when CU continues Pac-12 play at Pauley Pavilion.
It will be the Pac-12 opener for the Bruins, while the Buffs began league play on Sunday with a down-to-the-wire 80-76 win at home against Stanford. It will be the first of two straight top-15 foes for CU, which hosts No. 13 Tennessee on Saturday.
“We need to stick to what we do. It’s more about us than them,” sophomore forward Jabari Walker said. “I think if we go in with a nothing-to-lose mindset, that will be key for us. It’s a big week. We’ve got to lock in mentally. I’ve been trying to get as much rest and recovery as I can, because I want to bring the best that I can to these games.”
While the Bruins welcomed back the entire cast that led the Final Four march, the Buffs have lost the players that accounted for 47 of CU’s 70 points in that win in Boulder in February that began the Bruins’ late hiccup. Outside seniors Elijah Parquet and Evan Battey, who is coming off a career-high 22 points in the win against Stanford, the extent of the Buffs’ experience at Pauley Pavilion is the 26 combined minutes played there last season by Walker, Tristan da Silva, and Keeshawn Barthelemy.
“Respect everybody but fear nobody. That mantra is true whether we’re playing Eastern Washington or Cal Bakersfield or UCLA,” CU head coach Tad Boyle said. “It goes both ways. You’d better respect the teams that maybe don’t have the street cred that UCLA does, but you cannot be intimidated by them either. You just have to understand — you practice, your habits, you put all this time in in the offseason to play games like this. You’re preparing to beat good teams. And UCLA is a good team.
“I think every game (between the teams) since Mick Cronin has been there has come down to the last four minutes. Now, the first three, they won, because they made plays down the stretch. Last year at our place, on Senior Night, we made plays down the stretch and they didn’t, and we won. That’s what it’s going to come down to. You have to beat UCLA, because they’re not going to beat themselves.”
CU Buffs men’s basketball at No. 5 UCLA Bruins
TIPOFF: Wednesday, 7:30 p.m. MT, Pauley Pavilion, Los Angeles.
BROADCAST: TV — Pac-12 Networks; Radio — 850 AM and 94.1 FM.
RECORDS: Colorado 6-1, 1-0 Pac-12 Conference; UCLA 6-1, 0-0.
COACHES: UCLA — Mick Cronin, 3rd season (47-23, 412-194 overall); Colorado—Tad Boyle, 12th season (239-144, 295-210 overall).
KEY PLAYERS: UCLA — G Johnny Juzang, Jr., 17.4 ppg, 4.6 rpg; G/F Jaime Jaquez, Jr., 15.6 ppg, 6.7 rpg; G Jules Bernard, Sr., 14.6 ppg, .438 3-point percentage; G Tyger Campbell, R-Jr., 11.4 ppg, 3.6 apg, .464 3-point percentage. Colorado — F Evan Battey, R-Sr., 14.9 ppg, 4.6 rpg, .631 field goal percentage; F Jabari Walker, So., 13.9 ppg, 9.3 rpg; G Keeshawn Barthelemy, R-So., 14.6 ppg, 2.4 apg, .500 3-point percentage; F Tristan da Silva, So., 8.9 ppg, .500 field goal percentage.
NOTES: UCLA has played without senior forward Cody Riley since he suffered a sprained left MCL in the season opener…CU hasn’t posted a win against a ranked team in a true road game since a 48-47 victory at No. 19 Oregon on Feb. 7, 2013…The Buffs are just 2-10 all-time at UCLA, but those wins occurred somewhat recently in the 2017-18 and 2018-19 seasons…Evan Battey finished his memorable game against Stanford at No. 38 on CU’s all-time scoring list with 1,003 points. Next on the list are Andre Roberson (1,012) and Chauncey Billups (1,020)…Saturday’s game against No. 13 Tennessee (noon, FS1) will mark the first time the Buffs have played consecutive top-15 opponents since sweeping No. 4 Arizona State and No. 14 Arizona on Jan. 4 and Jan 6, 2018.