A week ago, before arguably his team's worst loss of the season, UCLA head coach Steve Alford was asked how much momentum matters heading into the postseason.
“That varies,” he replied. “That's why they refer to it as March Madness. There's teams every year that are playing well going into the tournament, and then they continue to play well.
“Then you've got the flip-flop of it. You limp into the tournament, you get on a run, and you play well.”
Heading into the Pac-12 tournament Thursday against either Oregon or Oregon State, the Bruins (23-8, 12-6) could be banking on the latter. Before its regular-season finale, UCLA had appeared to be rolling into solid form. Sure, it had dropped a game at Stanford and a double-overtime home loss to Oregon, but the latter came without the services of suspended stars Kyle Anderson and Jordan Adams.
Wins against the Beavers and at Washington seemed to set things right again in Westwood. Only one team remained on the schedule, and that one hadn't won a game since Feb. 1.
And yet, the Bruins fell apart in a 73-55 loss at Washington State, now the 11th-seed at the MGM Grand Arena this week. UCLA had failed to score at least 70 points just four times before then. There were more ugly numbers: 33.3-percent shooting, a season low; 11 assists against 12 turnovers; a 46-37 rebounding margin in the Cougars' favor.
The trend, however was clear: 0-4 in road series finales. For whatever reason, Alford could not get his team to string together two conference wins away from Pauley Pavilion — particularly concerning given that the standard two-day turnaround closely mirrors that of the NCAA tournament.
After walking off the court at Beasley Coliseum, players fell back on the same well-worn quotes they'd used in losses at Utah, Stanford and Oregon State: We're not really sure what went wrong, and we've got to be more prepared.
A few days later, Alford offered a bit more. An 18-point loss to one of the worst major-conference teams in college basketball, he said, was an anomaly that shouldn't be taken as an omen. This, despite the fact that he made NCAA tournament-prep a key goal for the weekend road trip.
“In my 23-year career, I think every year there has been one CD that I'll throw away, and that was the one,” Alford said. “It just so happened that it ended up being the last regular-season game.
“Just watching it live and then on tape, it wasn't us. We did miss a lot of shots. But it just wasn't us. It wasn't our character as a team. I'm hoping that that's just one of those one-game things because we have not played like that all year.”
But if Pullman, Wash., was enough to throw the team off course, what damage might Las Vegas do? The Bruins played a non-conference tournament in Sin City, but the tournament puts them closer to the strip and in the same hotel as 11 other teams. Players can't walk from their rooms to the court without passing slots and tables.
“Yeah, I wouldn't be telling the truth if I said that the distractions are not greater from that,” Alford said.
Jack Wang covers UCLA and the Pac-12 for Digital First Media at the Los Angeles Daily News. Follow him on Twitter @thejackwang.