Having reached top of Pac-12, UCLA could truly peak by getting more out of its bench

Westwood, CA - November 14: UCLA guard David Singleton celebrates going to the free-throw line.
UCLA guard David Singleton celebrates going to the free-throw line after he was fouled by Norfolk State guard Joe Bryant Jr. at Pauley Pavilion. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

A winner of 11 consecutive games, the longest streak in the nation among major-conference teams, UCLA keeps losing one important battle.

Its backups are repeatedly getting beaten.

The Bruins’ bench players have been outscored by more than double in their five Pac-12 Conference games, the 81-39 shortfall not entirely their fault.

David Singleton, the team’s star sixth man, has started three consecutive games with freshman guard Amari Bailey sidelined by discomfort in his left foot. That move has shortened coach Mick Cronin’s rotation, particularly in tight games, leaving starters Tyger Campbell and Jaime Jaquez Jr. to log unusually heavy minutes.

The issue was never more acute than it was last week, when USC’s backups outscored their Bruins counterparts 22-5. Reese Dixon-Waters’ 12 points in the second half matched UCLA’s total as a team before Jaylen Clark’s go-ahead three-pointer in the final seconds was followed by a Singleton free throw.

Bench usage is a conundrum the No. 7 Bruins (14-2, 5-0 Pac-12) will face once more Thursday night at Pauley Pavilion against Utah (12-5, 5-1) as they try to maintain sole possession of first place in the conference standings.

Cronin acknowledged the dual benefit to playing his bench more, those extra minutes speeding the development of freshmen Will McClendon, Dylan Andrews and Abramo Canka while also providing rest for tired starters. The coach's efforts figure to be complicated by the continued absence of Bailey, who did not practice Wednesday and is not expected to play this week.

“One man’s trials,” Cronin said, “is always another man’s opportunity in sports.”

In a bid to keep players fresh, Cronin said he’s started his annual midseason tradition of shortened practices. Campbell practiced for 20 minutes Monday before being instructed to hop on a stationary bike, his coach telling him to mimic a former Tour de France rider.

“He kept trying to get off,” Cronin said. “I kept telling him to be Lance Armstrong.”

Campbell has nearly had to go the distance in Pac-12 play, his 34.5 minutes per game ranking fourth among conference players, not far ahead of Jaquez’s 33.4 minutes (10th). As a result of the heavy workload, Campbell’s production has tailed off in the second half of Pac-12 games, the point guard averaging 5.8 points on 35.7% shooting to go with 2.2 assists and 1.6 turnovers. In the first half of those games, he averaged 7.4 points on 40% shooting to go with 3.4 assists and 0.6 turnovers.

Surprisingly, an opposite trend has held true for Jaquez. The small forward is averaging 11.2 points in the second half of conference games while making 52.6% of his shots along with 1.2 assists and 0.8 turnovers, as opposed to 6.4 points on 44.8% shooting along with one assist and one turnover in the first half.

As a team, UCLA has committed 30 of its 47 turnovers (63.8%) after halftime in Pac-12 games, suggesting it might be wearing down with its starters playing so many minutes.

With Singleton starting, Cronin had been reluctant to go to his diminished bench in two of the last three games, the exception coming in a blowout of Washington. UCLA’s reserves logged a combined 31 minutes during a comeback victory over Washington State and just 26 minutes as the Bruins held off USC’s furious comeback bid last week.

Singleton has played starter’s minutes regardless of his role, a tribute to the fifth-year senior’s strong three-point accuracy (49.3%), improved defense and veteran savvy.

McClendon’s minutes have been on the rise since his season debut last month, Cronin valuing the redshirt freshman guard’s hounding defense and practically error-free play that has included zero turnovers in 83 minutes. Cronin also lauded McClendon as “maybe our best post feeder” not long after he made the pass to big Adem Bona for the winning points against Washington State.

Bona’s primary backup continues to be Kenneth Nwuba as Mac Etienne deals with a wrist injury in addition to the bulky brace that’s a reminder of his having sat out all of last season because of a torn knee ligament.

Meanwhile, Andrews’ minutes have fluctuated like the stock market in an unstable economy, the freshman backup point guard playing only one minute against Washington State before leading the reserves with 12 minutes against USC.

Canka has been the wild card, usually getting off the bench only during comfortable victories.

For months, Cronin has talked about the importance of expanding his bench’s role. Beyond the obvious benefits, it could also serve as motivation.

“You’ve got to get enough guys where you can hold guys accountable,” Cronin said after his team’s last loss, against Baylor in late November. “That’s how you can get to climb to the top of the mountain.”

Having reached the Pac-12 summit, the Bruins' ability to stay there could depend in large part on how much more they get out of their reserves.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.