Coach Steve Alford and UCLA will look to rebound from a 79-75 loss on Thursday… (Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles…)
Two games into Pac-12 Conference play and UCLA already faces a make-or-break moment.
After the Bruins lost to top-ranked Arizona on Thursday, Coach Steve Alford labeled Sunday's game against Arizona State "vital."
Vital, two games into a 16-game conference season?
Well, he has a point, when the Bruins (12-3 overall, 1-1 Pac-12) face the Sun Devils (13-3, 2-1) in Pauley Pavilion.
"There is a lot of season left, but when you're trying to stay in a conference race, teams that lose multiple home games, especially early, makes a difficult climb," Alford said.
UCLA toddles off down the Pac-12 road next, facing No. 15 Colorado and a 12-3 Utah.
"Road wins come at a premium," Alford said. "Any time you get one, it's great, but they are very difficult. You got to do things at home. I do think there is pressure, and our guys know that. You got to perform under that pressure."
So his players were ready with a talking-point response after the Arizona loss.
"We have to play a full game, 40 minutes complete," said guard Jordan Adams. "We need to play at a high level the whole game."
Alford said the Bruins were close. Are they?
"You can't really tell, not until you dig deep and get a win," said guard Kyle Anderson.
Regarding the loss to Arizona, Anderson said, "We lost to a very good team. I think we did all we could down the stretch."
But not everything.
"We missed some big free throws," he said. "We missed some wide-open shots."
The Bruins trailed, 53-48, with 14 minutes left. That bulged to 60-48 three minutes later. During that stretch, UCLA missed four layups on one possession. They missed five consecutive free throws, as the Wildcats extended the lead to 68-55.
"The effort was outstanding for 40 minutes," Alford said. "The execution is what we have to work on."
Arizona State presents challenges
Guard Jahii Carson is one of the top point guards in the Pac-12.
"He can score, and score quickly," Alford said. "He will be quiet for six or seven minutes and, in a two-minute stretch, score eight points."
But whom UCLA players are well aware of is 7-foot-2 center Jordan Bachynski.
Bachynski smothered the Bruins in Tempe last season. He made 10 of 12 shots and finished with 22 points, 15 rebounds and six blocked shots in a 78-60 Arizona State victory.
The Bruins prepped for his visit with a so-so job on Kaleb Tarczewski on Thursday. Tarczewski made all six of his shots, finishing with 16 points and eight rebounds.
Tony Parker, the Bruins' main muscle, had eight points and seven rebounds in the first half. He finished with 10 points and eight rebounds.
"I have to get more rebounds in the second half," Parker said.
So Parker returned to the talking point, saying, "We have to put two halves together and I have to play a total of 40 minutes."