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UCLA goes into Pac-10 tournament as avengers

UCLA BASKETBALL

Several conference foes got the best of the 15th-ranked Bruins, and that will be on the players' minds if they cross paths again. There's also the matter of getting a good seeding in NCAA tournament.

March 12, 2009|David Wharton

The first thing out of Jrue Holiday's mouth is all coach-speak and political correctness.

The UCLA freshman does not want to make it sound as if he and the rest of the Bruins are seeking revenge against teams that defeated them this season.

"I don't want to put that out there," he says. Then, after the briefest pause, the guard adds: "But it might be revenge, yeah."

Arizona. Arizona State. Washington. Washington State.

There is no shortage of conference foes that got the better of the 15th-ranked Bruins and might cross paths with them again during the Pacific 10 tournament at Staples Center this week.

Add retribution to the list of goals that UCLA is hoping to accomplish over the next few days.

"There are a whole bunch of things in this Pac-10 tournament that mean a lot," senior Darren Collison said.

If nothing else, the field looks to be wide open. As Arizona interim Coach Russ Pennell said: "It ought to be a pretty exciting weekend."

With a 24-7 record over the regular season, 13-5 in conference, the Bruins will play with an eye on their position in the fast-approaching NCAA tournament.

The latest predictions have them falling somewhere around a fourth seeding. A quick loss could drop them to the dreaded fifth spot, the annual upset special, but they also have a shot at No. 3 and a geographical advantage through the early rounds.

"If we won the whole tournament," Coach Ben Howland said. "Our goal obviously is to stay in the West."

The Bruins might also improve their standing in the national polls, where they started at No. 4 in the preseason and fell as low as No. 22 after losing three of four games in February.

That rough stretch raises another issue with this team: confidence.

UCLA was on a roll before it lost those games. Now the Bruins are on another hot streak, winning four straight.

"You want to win and have as much momentum [as possible] going into the tournament," swingman Josh Shipp said. "You want to be peaking at this point of the year."

Oregon Coach Ernie Kent, whose team visited Pauley Pavilion for the regular-season finale last week, sees an upward trend. "I think their biggest improvement is they're getting more production out of their younger players," he said.

To reach the Pac-10 tournament championship, UCLA must emerge from the bottom half of the draw, prevailing against the likes of Washington State, California and USC. The top half would provide a winner from, among others, the Arizona schools and Washington.

Which circles back to the notion of vengeance.

Maybe the players can live with tough losses on the road, but they keep mentioning the Washington State game at home. Had they won, they would have tied Washington for the Pac-10 championship, which would have been their fourth straight conference title.

"We should be the No. 1 team," Holiday said. "We shouldn't have lost."

It was a particularly tough day for him, chasing Klay Thompson around the court as the Cougars guard scored 15 points in the first half.

Holiday talked this week about the season-long process of improving his technique when trailing shooters, making sure he doesn't cut underneath screens or get bumped off to allow separation.

"The next time I trail somebody," he said, "hopefully I'll do it the right way."

He also talked about watching Washington -- the team his brother, Justin, plays for -- win the regular-season title.

"My brother has a ring under his belt and I don't," Holiday said. "I've been thinking about that."

It seems the Bruins have some scores to settle this week.

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david.wharton@latimes.com

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Schedule

Pac-10 tournament

All games at Staples:

WEDNESDAY (C6)

Stanford 62, Oregon State 54

Washington St. 62, Oregon 40

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TODAY

Arizona State vs. Arizona, noon

Washington vs. Stanford, 2:30

California vs. USC, 6 p.m.

UCLA vs.

Washington State, 8:30 p.m.

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FRIDAY

Semifinals, 6 and 8:30 p.m.

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SATURDAY

Championship, 3 p.m.

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