The UCLA Bruins are headed back to the limelight, and not a moment too soon as far as they are concerned.
After an embarrassing debacle in near anonymity at last-place Washington State on Wednesday night, UCLA will face Washington on Saturday at 11 a.m. PT in Seattle in the finale of a wacky regular season with a chance to win at least a share of the Pac-12 title.
UCLA (22-8, 12-5) would have already sewn up at least a share of the title if not for that loss to the Cougars, but instead remains tied with Oregon (23-7, 12-5) for the top spot as the teams head into their last games. Oregon is at Utah on Saturday.
"I don't know if it's luck, but we are where we are," UCLA coach Ben Howland said. "We're tied with a game to go."
To win their first conference title since 2008, the Bruins need to do something they haven't done since Howland's first season in 2004: win at Washington. They'll also need to rebound from an extraordinarily lackluster effort in Pullman, where the first-place Bruins were outclassed by this season's league cellar dweller despite the fact the Cougars were playing without two of their top three leading scorers.
The Bruins showed up flat and without any kind of urgency despite the Pac-12 title sitting within reach. It was an uninspired performance as the Bruins failed to play any kind of defense and scored only two field goals in the first 12 minutes as they fell behind 25-4 before losing 73-61.
Howland accepted part of the blame, saying he should have done more to impress upon them the urgency to perform at this time of year, but it's not unreasonable to expect the players have some kind of inner pride when playing for a conference title in the final week of the season, is it?
Howland, who said the team had a "very spirited" and "hard" practice session after that debacle, expected that the team would look much different Saturday and for the rest of this season.
"I am very confident that for the remainder of the 2012-13 season, you will never see another effort like that out of our team," Howland said.
He's probably right. Those types of efforts have cropped up from time to time this season, and Wednesday's was very predictable. It was played in a sparsely populated Beasley Coliseum in Pullman, Wash., against a team going nowhere, and the Bruins clearly overlooked their opponent.
But when the bright lights are on and the stakes are high, the spotlight-seeking Bruins seem to rise to the occasion. Saturday's game will be nationally televised by CBS and has the aforementioned Pac-12 title riding on it. The Bruins have shined in similar situations all season. They seem to need high stakes or a revenge factor or national television to play well, so there is little chance the Bruins will embarrass themselves in such a situation.
"I'm honestly not worried about that at all," Howland said.
Asked if he had seen something in his team that led him to believe the players were excited about what amounts to a second chance at winning the title, Howland held his tongue.
"I think we'll let our actions speak for our words," Howland said. "We'll let our results and our actions speak for our words. What I'm trying to say is, yeah, I think they are."
This isn't the first time UCLA has gotten new life in the conference title race. They were three games back on Jan. 30 but clawed back to the top with the help of some key wins and timely losses by Oregon and Arizona. Wednesday's loss seemed to end the hope, but then Oregon lost at Colorado to maintain the status quo and create yet another spotlight moment for the Bruins on Saturday.
After the Washington game comes perhaps the most dangerous remaining game for UCLA in this pattern. They'll play the second round of the Pac-12 tournament against a team seeded in the Nos. 6 to 10 range and the game will be on the Pac-12 Networks. That sets up as the type of low-profile matchup that has given UCLA fits, but a loss probably won't keep it out of the NCAA tournament.
After that, it's the conference tournament semifinals and a possible ESPN game and the conference tournament final -- also on ESPN. Then, of course, comes the NCAA tournament and the type of spotlight upon which these Bruins thrive. For a team like this, a nice NCAA tournament run doesn't seem so far-fetched.
That's right, it would come as no surprise to see the same team that lost to Washington State on Wednesday make a run to the Sweet 16 or beyond. It has been that kind of a wacky season for the Bruins.