UCLA has lost two straight. Here are five things the Bruins must do to win the Pac-12
Mick Cronin rarely goes easy on his players.
Known for ripping his team in good times (a recent home win over USC, albeit a hideous one) and bad (a November loss to Illinois after holding a 15-point lead in the second half), UCLA’s volatile coach took a softer approach Thursday night.
He praised USC. He gave the Trojans credit for mucking up the eighth-ranked Bruins’ offense. For making “unguardable” shots. For getting fans behind them on the way to a runaway 77-64 victory at the Galen Center in which they outscored UCLA by 25 points in the second half.
His guys? Cronin acknowledged they didn’t play well. That was about it.
“You want me to come in here and beat my team up?” Cronin told reporters after his team’s second consecutive loss dropped it to 17-4 overall and 8-2 in the Pac-12. “We play freshmen, we’re far from a juggernaut.”
It was reminiscent of the way Cronin responded to his team’s three-game losing streak at the end of the 2020-21 season.
“We're overachieving,” Cronin said at that point. “They're giving everything they got. My fear is they run out of gas."
Those Bruins went on to drop another game, against Oregon State in the Pac-12 tournament. What happened next? UCLA rolled off five consecutive victories in the NCAA tournament as part of a remarkable run from the First Four to the Final Four.
These Bruins need a few fixes to make that sort of postseason push, but some perspective is a good place to start. No season ends with two straight losses in late January.
UCLA leads Utah by half a game in the Pac-12 standings at the midpoint of conference play. Everything it wants to achieve this season remains in play. Here are five things the Bruins must do to win their first Pac-12 regular-season title in a decade:
For two consecutive games against its rival, UCLA has acted like it had no idea what to do when the Trojans made a big run.
The only thing that went right in the second half Thursday was broadcaster Bill Walton extending his long arms over his head along to “YMCA” during a timeout.
The Bruins’ offense continued to be a mess. Jaylen Clark missed all seven shots, including several one-handed runners that Cronin said he wants him to stop taking. Adem Bona threw two bad passes that went for turnovers early in the second half, part of a horrid stretch in which UCLA committed five turnovers in eight minutes while making only two of seven shots to fuel the Trojans’ comeback.
Too often, the Bruins found themselves searching for tough shots late in the shot clock. Jaime Jaquez Jr. made a few, including a baseline jumper, but that’s not a winning formula in tight games.
Someone needs to lead this team when things go wrong. One candidate emerged after the game.
“I have to be the one to step up,” senior guard David Singleton said. “I take accountability for how we play. I got to talk more. I got to keep us together.”
Set the rotation
Now that Amari Bailey is back, Cronin needs to establish a consistent rotation.
Those efforts were complicated Thursday by the absence of freshman guard Dylan Andrews, who was too sick to practice the previous day. Once Andrews returns, a more reliable rotation needs to be set.
Cronin is famous for yanking underperforming players, but a more consistent usage pattern with the reserves could help them find a better rhythm than they have shown in scattershot minutes this season. The familiarity of the same players being on the court together for more minutes can only help.
It’s understandable that Cronin wants Jaquez and Tyger Campbell, his best two players, on the court as long as possible. But they continue to show signs of fatigue late in games, Campbell not getting much lift on a shot that was blocked late Thursday and Jaquez missing some shots he usually makes.
One solution would be to let the reserves play a few more minutes in the first half, which would not only rest the starters but allow the Bruins to maintain a defensive intensity that has ebbed recently.
Remember their identity
Everything the Bruins do well starts with defense.
It kept them in the game against Arizona last weekend when shots weren’t falling and provided a 12-point halftime lead Thursday against USC.
But their inability to sustain intensity on that end of the court cost them against the Trojans and could lead to an early exit in the NCAA tournament. Given its lack of pure shooters, UCLA is going to struggle with talented teams unless its offense is bolstered by the easy transition baskets that come from forcing turnovers.
The Bruins forced only two in the second half Thursday. That’s not going to get it done.
“We just got out-toughed,” Jaquez said. “I mean, it's the truth.”
Work on post feeds
As a freshman, Bona is going to endure some struggles. It’s predictable and forgivable.
The issue is when his teammates stop looking for him down low, it’s like playing four on five. It appeared that UCLA had solved its post feed dilemma a few weeks ago by reliably finding ways to get its 6-foot-10 center the ball, but that issue has reemerged.
The answer is twofold. Bona must do a better job of sealing defenders and his teammates need to find more ways to get him the ball cleanly.
The Bruins’ offense goes to the next level whenever Bona is actively involved around the basket.
Exhale … and move on
Adversity is inevitable in any season. Moving on quickly is what’s important.
Take a long walk. Go see a funny movie. Phone a friend.
Yes, the Bruins are going to drop in the national rankings and NCAA tournament projections.
Life will go on. A No. 1 or No. 2 seed remains in play. Now they must finish strong.
Win every game left on the schedule, including that early March showdown with Arizona at Pauley Pavilion. Make at least the championship game in the Pac-12 tournament.
Recapture the relentlessness from earlier in the season. Everything else should fall into place.
“It’s not the end of the world,” Singleton said. “We got games left. So we’re just going to push each other to get each other better.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.