TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) – UCLA had a difficult start to the season when three players were arrested in China on shoplifting charges. The Bruins had a rough stretch early in the Pac-12 schedule while laboring through a series of injuries.
They seem to be turning a corner at just the right time.
UCLA played one of its best all-around games of the season Thursday night, picking up a resume-boosting win by beating No. 13 Arizona 82-74 at one college basketball’s most difficult road venues.
“It’s huge,” said UCLA guard Aaron Holiday, who had 17 points and eight assists against the Wildcats. “We’re obviously fighting for our spot in the NCAA Tournament and it’s just a big win for us in that aspect.”
Alford had to restock his roster for the 2017-18 season after losing Lonzo Ball, TJ Leaf, Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton from last year’s team.
The Bruins had more holes to fill after Jalen Hill, Cody Riley and LiAngelo Ball were suspended indefinitely following their arrests in China for shoplifting. Ball left the team and the other two players had their suspensions extended for the rest of the season.
On the court, UCLA had a few growing pains, but picked up a neutral-site win over Kentucky and won three of its first four Pac-12 games. A three-game losing streak followed, seemingly pushing the Bruins away from the NCAA Tournament bubble.
UCLA (17-7, 8-4 Pac-12) pushed its way back in the NCAA Tournament picture with Thursday night’s road win. The Bruins have won four straight and are now a game behind Arizona in the Pac-12 race.
“This is a top 20 team, they’ve been top 10, so this is huge for us,” Bruins coach Steve Alford said.
UCLA has another difficult road test on Saturday, playing at Arizona State, which knocked off Southern California Thursday night.
ON THE RISE
Texas A&M. The Aggies (16-8, 5-6 SEC) appeared to have their bubble popped after opening conference play with five straight losses. Texas A&M has played itself back into the NCAA Tournament conversation by winning five of its last seven games. The most recent one was huge: 81-80 at No. 8 Auburn, the Tigers’ only home loss this season. The Aggies have another shot to build their case on Saturday, facing No. 24 Kentucky.
Boise State. The first-place Broncos (20-4, 9-2 Mountain West) have been taking care of business, winning four straight and seven of the past eight. The only loss in that stretch was to Nevada, the team right behind them in the standings. Boise State has a chance to boost its lead and regular-season title chances with games against Utah State and a rematch against Nevada this weekend.
Marquette. A string of four-point losses put the Golden Eagles (14-10, 5-7 Big East) precariously close to bubble bursting territory. A win over Seton Hall last week, their third Quadrant 1 victory, gives them life again. Still a lot of work left to get there. Marquette has games against St. John’s and Creighton this weekend.
Virginia Tech. The Hokies (17-7, 6-5 ACC) bounced back from a loss to Miami last Saturday by knocking off fellow ACC bubble team North Carolina State. The next two games provide big chances for resume boosting: At No. 2 Virginia and at No. 9 Duke.
Washington. The Huskies moved into the NCAA Tournament picture by sweeping the Arizona schools, their first consecutive wins against ranked opponents since 2007. A loss to Oregon Thursday night was a step back. Washington (17-7, 7-4 Pac-12) is still in good shape, but can’t afford many more losses or a quick exit from the Pac-12 tournament.
TCU. The Horned Frogs (16-8, 4-7 Big 12) play in college basketball’s toughest conference, which could help them come Selection Sunday. Even so, they could stand to pick up a few more wins after missing out on resume-building wins last week in losses to No. 7 Texas Tech and No. 10 Kansas. Wins over Texas and No. 19 West Virginia this weekend could certainly help.
Georgia. The Bulldogs (13-10, 4-7 SEC) lost a game they couldn’t afford to lose against Vanderbilt on Wednesday and now have dropped five of six. There are opportunities to build their resume back up, but the margin for error has become incredibly thin.
SMU. Consecutive losses to Tulsa and Houston didn’t kill the Mustangs’ NCAA Tournament hopes, but certainly didn’t help. SMU (15-9, 5-6 AAC) has a neutral-court win over No. 13 Arizona and won at No. 22 Wichita State, but too many more slip-ups could end up costing the Mustangs.
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