A UCLA streak that deserves a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament

They play such a sharp defense, the crowd roars at every deflection.

They are so smart in attack, the crowd roars at every screen.

So ready are they for the road that a packed, raucous Pauley Pavilion left them Saturday night with the kind of noise rarely heard in this part of Westwood.

This is the loudest UCLA basketball team in years.

This is also the best.

After the Bruins’ biggest win of the season — an 82-73 win over eighth-ranked Arizona — there’s only one place for UCLA to go from here.

The Bruins deserve a No. 1 seed in the upcoming NCAA tournament no matter what happens in this week’s Pac-12 tournament.

The selection committee needs to lose its inherent regional bias, forget those bad feelings about UCLA leaving the Big Ten and do the right thing.

UCLA is the only seed. Time. There is no tougher team. There is no team more tested. For the past four years no team has been preparing for this moment together.

The 27-4 Bruins may not be future NBA stars, but they are formidable and experienced college players, and that’s what wins championships.

On a night where five Bruin senior players were honored in their final game at Pauley Pavilion, one number stood out among the three stars of Jaime Jaquez Jr., Tyger Campbell and David Singleton.

Over the last four seasons, the team has achieved a record of 95-34.

That’s a headline number. After Saturday’s final buzzer, the senior-led squad is a number that sprinted off the court, ran into the grandstands and jumped into a pool of bouncing, cheering students.

Something special is happening here. They know it, and you know it.

“We came to UCLA … nobody was in the games … we were on a mission to put UCLA back on top,” Jaquez said. “We’re living a dream right now…literally…it’s like a storybook to me.”

It was a fantastic night overshadowed by a nagging injury, but this team looks deep enough to pull through.

When defensive grinder Jaylen Clark left the game early in the second half with a lower leg injury, it may not have been a coincidence that the arena was filled with chants of “Don’t Stop Believing.”

While Bruin fans immediately thought about how Jaquez’s ankle injury helped derail their NCAA tournament hopes last season, these Bruins appear strong enough to survive an extended absence from Clark, who finished the game on crutches.

“If he’s not OK, I’ll feel terrible for him because he’s a family member,” Clark coach Mick Cronin said. “But we have a lot of other guys.”

UCLA guard Tyger Campbell, right, drives past Arizona guard Kylan Boswell during the first half.

(Ringo HW Chiu/Associated Press)

There’s Will McClendon and Dylan Andrews, two very famous kids who have barely been seen. Adem Bona has the power to block shots. And of course there are those three seniors.

“Our seniors … I didn’t think they were going to let us lose today,” Cronin said.

These Bruins are so loaded, they’ve won 25 straight games at national level in a quiet Pauley Pavilion.

These Bruins seem so destined to end their home schedule in a streak on a night that they also celebrated the 50th anniversary of their 1973 national championship.

If Saturday was any indication, more memories are coming.

The Bruins forced 17 Arizona turnovers, outscored the bigger Wildcats by six, and scored more second-chance points and fast-break points and points in the paint. Basically, they took one of the most physical teams in the country to the ground and hung them. This is how you win in Madness. That’s why you don’t want to bet against them.

“The recipe for success in March … is a great point guard and some senior leadership,” Cronin said. “So we have a chance.”

Since Cronin took over for Steve Alford, the program has been building for this month.

In his first season, he built a team that was one of the hottest in the country before COVID-19 shut everything down. Two years ago, they advanced to the Final Four. They advanced to the Sweet 16 last year.

They now appear ready to take the final step.

There is none of the indecisiveness that plagued that first Cronin season. As in 2021, there will be no more 40 meter jumps waiting to defeat them. They are playing better as a team than last season, the ball was often stopped in front of goal scorer Johnny Juzang.

They are playing the best defense in the Cronin era. They are playing with the highest basketball coefficient of the Cronin era. They are playing as well as anyone in the country.

They started the day fourth in net rating, and lost two of the three teams ahead of them, falling to lesser opponents Alabama and Tennessee.

They started the day second in the respected KenPom basketball ratings, and even if you don’t understand all those decimals, you do understand that they’re better than some of the more publicized contenders for a top spot.

Purdue as a single seed? The Boilermakers have lost four of their last seven games, including a 14-point loss to a Maryland team that beat UCLA by 27.

Alabama as a single seed? While embroiled in a murder scandal, it has lost two of its last six games, falling to No. 24 Texas A&M on Saturday.

Houston and Kansas are clearly the only No. 1 seeds, and Kansas should also be in doubt after Saturday’s 16-point loss to eighth-ranked Texas.

Some might think it’s better for UCLA to be the No. 2 seed if it ensures they stay in a West Regional playing in Las Vegas.

But they deserve a top spot and a place in Las Vegas, where a historically not well-traveled Bruin fanbase would pack the Strip. Many of these people have personally seen some version of this team win 25 games in a row. They know the journey will be worth it.

“You have to have talent and good kids,” Cronin said. “These guys are winners.”

Before Saturday’s game, Jaquez jumped on the court and danced to the beat of the Bruins’ fight song, while Russell Stong, a senior walk-on, lifted the cheering crowd.

The game ended with equal energy as Jaquez picked up another deflection to give the Bruins a double-digit lead, then screamed to the giddy thousands in attendance.

Cover your ears, Bruin fans. The next few weeks can be deafening.

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