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UCLA figures out Cal easily but is left baffled by projected tournament seeding

It was a sneak peek that left some UCLA basketball fans covering their eyes.

A No. 2 seed in the East Region? While Arizona is No. 2 in the West? How does that make any sense?

The Bruins’ projected NCAA tournament seed, released Saturday as part of a bracket preview show, was the only number that didn’t favor them as they jockey with the Wildcats for the top spot out of the Pac-12 Conference.

Fourth-ranked UCLA entered Saturday’s game against California at Pauley Pavilion with a better national ranking than eighth-ranked Arizona. The Bruins were No. 3 in widely respected college basketball analyst Ken Pomeroy’s ratings, well ahead of the No. 9 Wildcats. And in the metric designed for and supposedly most valued by the NCAA tournament selection committee, UCLA was No. 4 to Arizona’s No. 11 in the NCAA Evaluation Tool (NET).

Heck, the Bruins were looking down at the Wildcats in the Pac-12 standings — residing two games ahead in the all-important loss column — even after losing their only head-to-head meeting last month in Tucson. UCLA was firmly holding that position as of Saturday night, taking a 37-point lead over Cal in the second half of a 78-43 victory.

Staying in the West is a big deal for UCLA and Arizona because it means playing the regional games at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, where either team’s fan base would overtake the place.

What’s the deal with the Wildcats having the inside track to the Strip?

Two words: quality wins. Arizona has more, and the selection committee sent a message Saturday that it clearly values good wins over a lack of bad losses.

The Wildcats have gone 6-2 in so-called Quad 1 games, defined as those involving opponents with a NET ranking of 1 to 15 at home, 1 to 50 at a neutral site or 1 to 75 on the road.

The Bruins have gone a respectable 4-4 in Quad 1 games, but they came into Saturday with a tidy 18-0 record in Quad 2, 3 and 4 games against lesser competition.

Arizona? The Wildcats owned one Quad 2 loss and an additional Quad 3 loss, though the selection committee shrugged in seeding Arizona No. 6 overall to UCLA’s No. 8 as part of the top 16 teams revealed Saturday.

For UCLA to overtake its biggest Pac-12 rival for seedings purposes, the Bruins must win the rematch against the Wildcats on March 4 at Pauley Pavilion. The Bruins also probably can’t stumble against Arizona in the Pac-12 tournament, which would serve as a tiebreaker should the teams meet each having one win against the other.

UCLA also can’t absorb a bad loss. Missing reserve center Kenneth Nwuba (left hip) and backup forward Abramo Canka (illness), the Bruins still had more than enough against overmatched Cal.

The first possession was telling. UCLA missed three shots and grabbed the rebound every time, finally scoring on Jaime Jaquez Jr.’s putback. Soon the Bruins were ahead 12-0 and it felt like the rest of the game was just going to be details.

Nearly every highlight belonged to UCLA on the way to building a 38-15 halftime lead that represented the fewest points it had given up in any half of the Mick Cronin era. There was a ferocious Adem Bona dunk off an outlet pass from Amari Bailey and a Bailey reverse layup as the freshman guard bounced back from the dreadful performance two days earlier that led to his benching against Stanford.

Bona made the sold-out crowd roar again near the end of the first half when he pinned a block against the backboard, leading to a Jaylen Clark fastbreak layup that symbolized the runaway.

One Bruin acknowledged he would peek at the bracket preview Saturday.

At the same time, David Singleton pointed out the folly of it all, so many games left to play and so much movement left to make for teams trying to position themselves for the games that matter.

Where is UCLA in the bracket as of the middle of February? Does it really matter?

“Ask us in March,” Singleton said.

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