UCLA guard Lazeric Jones beats Stanford guard Aaron Bright on a drive down… (Paul Sakuma / Associated…)
UCLA Coach Ben Howland rarely looks beyond the game at the end of his nose. Stanford, Thursday night at the Sports Arena, is the only thing he sniffs.
Yet Howland does draw on the past to see what could be the Bruins' future.
FOR THE RECORD:
UCLA basketball: An article in the Feb. 9 Sports section previewing the Bruins' game that night against Stanford said UCLA was 6-2 in games played in the Sports Arena this season. At that point, the Bruins were 6-3 in that venue. —
Anything below a fourth-place finish in the Pac-12 Conference regular season earns a four-day, four-night package that is anything but a vacation. Only the top four teams get a bye in the first round of the conference tournament, leaving eight teams needing four victories to reach any NCAA tournament office pool.
Howland tried to take that tour in 2001, when his Pittsburgh team won three consecutive games before being buried by Boston College in the Big East Conference tournament championship game.
"Look at the numbers, no one had won four in row in 25 years of the Big East tournament," Howland said. "You can do the math."
Addition and subtraction will take place at the Sports Arena on Thursday and Saturday.
UCLA, 13-10 overall, 6-5 in conference play, is tied for sixth in the Pac-12 with Stanford (16-7, 6-5), and the Bruins play second-place California (18-6, 8-3) on Saturday. So the Bruins will either climb the ladder or be left with sneaker prints on their scalps.
"Our goal was to win every home game, to win the Pac-12 outright and to win the Pac-12 tournament," center Joshua Smith said. "We still have chance to win the tournament championship."
The adjusted list of goals now includes making the Final (top) Four ... of the Pac-12 standings.
UCLA needs every advantage it can get. The Bruins' RPI rating has an RIP look -- a mid-major-like 113 as of Wednesday -- so an at-large bid into the NCAA tournament is a nonstarter.
That makes things simple, according to point guard Jerime Anderson: "You win the [conference] tournament, you go to the big tournament."
Winning three games rather than four seems more palatable for everybody.
"Finishing in the top four eliminates that extra game," Stanford Coach Johnny Dawkins said. "That's very useful when you're talking about depth and fatigue and you're in a situation where you lose and you go home."
UCLA sits one game behind Arizona and Oregon, which are tied for fourth in the Pac-12 standings.
"We get some wins and hopefully get some losses from other teams, maybe we finish in first or second and then do something nice with our season," UCLA center Anthony Stover said.
"It's really only a psychological thing," Stover said. "Three just sounds easier than four."
It can be done. Defending national champion Connecticut won five games in five nights in the Big East tournament last season, then won six more in a row for the NCAA title.
But no Pac-12 team ticketed for four games in four nights has ever reached the conference tournament championship game, let alone won it.
"I think it's life or death from the perspective of being able to win the conference tournament," Arizona Coach Sean Miller said. "There is so much parity in the conference that making a team play four games in four days is too big of a difference."
Washington leads the standings, followed by six teams that are within two games of each other. UCLA and Stanford bring up the rear of that group.
The Bruins could have used a win or two out of the three conference road games they've lost by three or fewer points.
"We had losses to Stanford, Oregon State and Washington where it came down to a couple of plays," Smith said. "We are not in a position to lose any more games."
The upside for UCLA is that five of the last seven conference games are at the Sports Arena, which serves as the Bruins warehouse away from home while Pauley Pavilion is being rebuilt. UCLA's record there is 6-2, and they've won five in a row.