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Still in UCLA’s corner, Ben Howland stressed importance of getting No. 1 seed in West

The longtime coach had something to say after practice earlier this season, so UCLA seniors Jaime Jaquez Jr., Tyger Campbell and David Singleton rallied around them.

They were all respectful and listened attentively. Ben Howland was an expert on this subject.

“Look,” Howland told them, “you have to do what you have to do to get the No. 1 seed in the West.”

It became something of a mantra, supporting them through long winning streaks and refocusing them after a handful of losses. Now it may be just what the Bruins need to get through an emotionally challenging week.

The fourth-ranked Bruins (25-4 overall, 16-2 Pac-12) have clinched the Pac-12 Conference regular season title with two games remaining and could be tempted to ride a winning streak that leads to an advantage. in a wall inside Pauley Pavilion.

It helps that a few incentives are built into UCLA’s last two home games of the season, against Thursday Arizona state (9/20, 7/11) and against Saturday eighth ranked Arizona. Extending the country’s longest active winning streak, which stands at 23 games, is a priority. That includes sending the seniors out as winners in their final home game, even if Campbell indicated on Wednesday that he’s not sure if this qualifies as his bye given his remaining year of eligibility.

But if the Bruins find they need an extra push, they can always revisit that mantra.

“Coach Howland talks about the only seed in the West, I think that’s something that’s stuck with us all season,” said Jaquez. “When the going got tough, we always had to remember what we were looking for, and it was to take that one seed and just put us in the best possible position to win a national championship.”

Howland knows how to win over the West. He was the last UCLA coach to lead his team to a No. 1 finish in the NCAA Tournament, capturing the West Region in 2008. Those Bruins advanced to the Final Four in San Antonio through the first two rounds in Anaheim and the regional rounds in Phoenix.

Securing the No. 1 or No. 2 seed in the West this season would lead to a similar favorable trajectory. The Bruins are almost certain to start the tournament in the Sacramento pod regardless of their results over the next two weeks, but a strong finish would likely guarantee a spot in the West Region, including the final games in the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.

Staying close to home would limit travel and presumably give the Bruins an edge with fans.

“If we’re going to do that,” Cronin said, “we need to win two this week.”

In the most recent projections, published on Tuesday, Bracket Matrix has listed UCLA as the top No. 2 seed, with 23 of 110 brackets jumping the Bruins to a No. 1 seed. The top seed most vulnerable to being overtaken is Purdue, which has lost four of its last six games.

UCLA guard Tyger Campbell (10) and Colorado guard KJ Simpson (2) in the first half on Sunday in Denver.

(David Zalubowski/Associated Press)

In his final run, Joe Lunardi of ESPN named Kansas as the No. 1 seed in the West, Houston as No. 1 in the Midwest, Purdue as No. 1 in the East, and Alabama as No. 1 in the South.

To be in with a chance of making that exclusive list, UCLA must go undefeated against two highly motivated opponents.

Arizona also remains in contention for one of the top seeds in the West, even after being stunned by Arizona State on Desmond Cambridge Jr.’s 60-footer at the buzzer last weekend. The Sun Devils will likely need to split their games against UCLA and USC this week to feel confident in their NCAA tournament chances going into the Pac-12 Tournament.

Cronin has received congratulations and text messages since his team defeated Colorado on Sunday to clinch the Pac-12 title. Cronin knows his players get similar compliments that can lead to complacency. Just look at Indiana, Cronin said. Three days after beating Purdue on the road, the Hoosiers came home and went against Iowa.

“Obviously,” Cronin said, “the concern for me is that I’m a big supporter of your emotional gas tank.”

Howland was among those who greeted Cronin. The coaches have known each other since basketball kingmaker Sonny Vaccaro recommended to Cronin, when an assistant under Bob Huggins of Cincinnati, that they join Howland’s Pittsburgh staff.

“I said to Sonny, ‘You’re trying to help Ben Howland,'” Cronin recalled, “and he said, ‘Yeah, I’m close to him,’ and I said, ‘Well, let’s try to help Mick Cronin.”

Cronin remained on Huggins’ staff before replacing him in 2006. He encountered Howland at club tournaments on the recruiting circuit, earning him an appreciation for the also no-nonsense, defense-first coach who led UCLA to three consecutive Final Fours before being fired in 2013. led to seven seasons in the state of Mississippi.

Cronin has welcomed Howland back to campus since the Bulldogs fired him last spring, inviting the 65-year-old to practice and gifting him a John Wooden-era UCLA letterman’s jacket. In December, Howland was the honorary captain in a game against Oregon at Pauley Pavilion.

It came as no surprise to Cronin what the exceptionally focused Howland told him after Cronin’s team became the first at UCLA to win the conference regular season title since Howland’s last crop of Bruins.

“He said, ‘You’ve got to win the next two,'” Cronin said, “‘and get the one seed in the West.’ ”