Throughout a 21-0 start that brought up visions of a Final Four appearance or even an NCAA title, the Arizona Wildcats kept saying one of their primary goals was just to win the Pac-12 championship.
Now, suddenly, there’s no guarantee of that.
Arizona’s two losses over the past four games, along with the fact that UCLA has won six of its last seven, mean the Bruins sit just a game behind No. 2 Arizona in the Pac-12 race, with six games to go.
ASU and Cal are two games behind the Wildcats, but UA has lost to each team once already.
The Bears are a particularly intruiging case, with four of their six remaining games at home — including matchups against all three of the other teams at or near the top.
“You start the season trying to win the championship,” UCLA coach Steve Alford told the Los Angeles Times after the Bruins beat Utah on Saturday. “We’re one game back in that chase. The guys know that. We don’t harp on it.”
The Wildcats won’t have to face UCLA again because of the Pac-12’s unbalanced schedule, and hold the tiebreaker based on their 79-75 win at UCLA on Jan. 9. However, the Bruins have a slightly softer remaining schedule.
UCLA and Arizona both have four road games left, but the Bruins head to Washington and the Bay Area, while UA must go to the Rockies and Oregon.
“Road wins will put us where we want to be in the chase that starts in March,” UCLA guard Norman Powell told the Times. “We’re one game behind Arizona. We don’t want to fall two or three games behind.”
As determined by plugging their remaining opponents’ Sagarin power ratings into the four teams’ schedules, UCLA has the easiest slate of upcoming games, even when factoring in game sites. Four points are added to opponents played on the road, while four are subtracted for those contested at home.
California has the second-easiest remaining schedule, according to the formula.
With identical schedules and no games left between them, Arizona and ASU are tied for having the toughest slate of games yet to be played.