UCLA forward Nikola Dragovic covers up a loose ball from USC forward Nikola… (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles…)
It's never too early to plan for the Pacific 10 Conference tournament, unless you play for USC this season.
For UCLA, there is considerable work to be done with six regular-season games remaining.
The Bruins, 11-13 overall and 6-6 in the Pac-10, had the luxury of knowing that an NCAA tournament invitation was set aside for them each of the last five seasons. This season, UCLA will have to be able to string together at least three consecutive victories in three days to win the Pac-10 tournament.
The Bruins have only one three-game winning streak this season, and that spanned 10 days.
With USC ineligible because of self-imposed sanctions, only nine teams will play in the Pac-10 tournament. UCLA is in sixth place, but if it drops to eighth or ninth, that would force it to play an extra game in the tournament.
But the Bruins have issues that might make winning difficult.
"The biggest thing for us is not turning the ball over," Coach Ben Howland said Tuesday. His team had 20 turnovers in a 68-64 loss to USC on Sunday.
"You watch the USC game and our half-court defense was pretty good. They got a lot of points off turnovers. Turnovers have plagued us."
The Bruins also seem vulnerable in other areas. They shoot only 62% on free throws and their already wafer-thin depth got worse when forward James Keefe re-injured his left shoulder. He is not expected to play this week.
The 6-foot-8 Keefe has averaged 16 minutes per game. Keefe said the shoulder will "eventually need surgery," but he was hoping to put it off until after the season.
UCLA totes a 16-game road winning streak against Washington State into Pullman on Thursday.
"I didn't know that," Cougars Coach Ken Bone said. "We're regarded as the conference's most difficult trip compared to the other schools."
Said Howland: "That's an amazing stat."
The trip this season is more of a chore for UCLA, which charted flights the last two years for the trip. Budget cuts have the Bruins flying commercial this time, which Howland said would mean a 12-hour journey.