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UCLA is hoping for better Pac-12 tourney, Vegas experience


LAS VEGAS — UCLA coach Mick Cronin has a unique relationship with Las Vegas.

He was offered the UNLV job in 2016, turning it down to remain at Cincinnati, and has said he considers Las Vegas his second home. Cronin’s Bruins have played five regular-season games in Las Vegas the past two years, and had a sixth scheduled against North Carolina in December 2021 that was canceled because of COVID-19 issues.

Then, of course, there is the annual Pac-12 Conference Tournament, which opens Wednesday, that brings Cronin and his team to Las Vegas.

But as much as he enjoys coming here, his on-court experiences haven’t always worked out the way he wanted. UCLA made the finals of the conference tournament last season before losing 84-76 to Arizona.

Then this season, the Bruins were swept in December by Illinois and Baylor. Cronin’s voice could be heard through the wall as he dressed down his team at halftime of one of those games.

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He said Tuesday, however, he isn’t anxious about this week as No. 2 UCLA (27-4) plays for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. He said he wants his players to enjoy the week.

To that end, Cronin planned to take them to Topgolf on Tuesday night.

Still, this is a big week for the Bruins, who if they win the tournament almost certainly would be the No. 1 seed in the West Region. And if they win the first two games of the NCAA Tournament, they would be right back in Las Vegas for the regional.

Cronin said the players have been focused on trying to become the West’s top seed, and there are practical reasons to try to achieve that spot.

“I do know the travel is an issue,” Cronin said. “I made one Final Four (2021 in the Indiana bubble). It took one flight to get there. Common sense would tell you you’re going to have more fans when you travel less. I guess you try to get every advantage on your side.”

Key loss for Bruins

Cronin said guard Jaylen Clark, who was named Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year, won’t play in the conference tournament because of a lower-leg injury.

Cronin said the additional playing time for other players would be beneficial, but acknowledged what Clark means to his team.

“It’s much harder to win that (defensive) award as a guard, but I’d be shocked if Jaylen Clark didn’t win that award unanimously,” Cronin said. “That’s how good of a defender he is.”

Cronin didn’t offer a prognosis for Clark’s return.

Championship rematch?

No. 8 Arizona (25-6) is the only other ranked Pac-12 team, and it would be a significant upset if the Wildcats didn’t face UCLA in the title game for the second year in a row.

They met on Saturday in Los Angeles, and the Bruins won 82-73. Arizona coach Tommy Lloyd said facing a veteran UCLA team at home on senior night would have been a tall task for any team.

“You could’ve played really well at UCLA that night and lost by three or four,” Lloyd said. “That hasn’t stuck with us at all. Hopefully, we learned a few things from it. I’ve moved on and hopefully our players have, too.”

The Wildcats finished the regular season with two losses in their final three games. Arizona also lost to rival Arizona State 89-88 on a 60-foot shot at the buzzer.

The field

UCLA and Arizona are not only locks to make the NCAA Tournament, both should receive high seeds.

There’s much less certainty for the rest of the conference.

Southern California (22-9) owns the next-highest NET ranking among Pac-12 schools at No. 45. The NET ranking is one metric the committee uses to determine the 68-team field.

Oregon (18-13) is next at No. 47, and Arizona State (20-11) is 64th.

It could be a nervous Sunday for those three Pac-12 teams as they wait to see which at-large teams are selected for the tournament.

Odds and ends

UCLA is a plus-150 favorite to win the conference tournament, according to FanDuel Sportsbook, meaning a $100 bet would pay $150. Arizona is nearly the co-favorite at plus-165, and USC is next at plus-650. … The Bruins dominated the conference awards. In addition to Clark, senior guard/forward Jaime Jaquez Jr. was named Player of the Year, forward Adem Bona the Freshman of the Year and Cronin the Coach of the Year. The other awards went to Arizona junior center Oumar Ballo as Most Improved Player and USC sophomore guard Reese Dixon-Waters as Sixth Player of the Year.

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