I have many theories when it comes to basketball. Some of them are of the universal variety that everyone knows (such as “defense wins championships”) while some are more bespoke and come from experience I’ve picked up over the years. It is with this knowledge that I share one of my theories with you all:
Sometimes, a young team just needs to get their ass kicked before they can figure out how to play basketball.
It’s the kind of thing I’ve seen with my team this current season. It’s a relatively young group that has a lot of new players playing increased roles and trying to figure out how to play together, but they’ve lost a host of close games due to various miscues. It got to the point where players would start to freeze late in games because they were afraid of making THE big mistake that would cost the game. But in the final game of our winter tournament, we faced a team at our level and got stomped. Not a single player on the team played well, everyone made a bevy of mistakes, and we ended up losing a winnable game by 40+ points (sound familiar?). Afterward, I told the team we were going back to basics, and our practices featured us working on a lot of little things. We weren’t working on any major problems because we approached it with a general idea: everyone on the team knows how to play basketball, but we’re beating ourselves with mental mistakes more than anything else, so slow down and make the game flow at our pace instead of at the opponents. Well, that work paid off; in our first game after the break, the team dominated from the opening whistle and won by 14 points, with even the bench players getting significant minutes.
The parallels with the current UCLA team feel pretty obvious, but while the Bruins continued their strong performance en route to a 73-61 victory over Washington, I thought back to how Mick Cronin approached things from the bench during the Utah game. Normally Cronin is very demonstrative and fiery when trying to get his players to do things, but during the Utah game, Cronin seemed calm and relatively quiet. In hindsight, it struck me as Cronin telling the players “ok, we’ll play this game your way, and once it’s over you can decide if you want to keep doing it that way or start playing my way.” And, in hindsight, the players seemed to decide that Cronin’s way was their best chance of winning; UCLA played some of its best defense of the season, holding Washington to 40.4% from the field, 24% (6-25) from deep, and forcing eight steals that led to 17 fast break points. UCLA has not made a lot of public noise about tracking deflections this year, but this seemed like a game where the Bruins were much better in that regard.
This was also a game where Cronin seemingly challenged his team to play better. In the first half, Sebastian Mack and Adem Bona picked up two early fouls, so Cronin turned to his bench and asked them to hold the line, which they did. Jan Vide played 14 of his season-high 16 minutes in the first half and was mostly solid, though his defense is still very clearly a work in progress at this stage. Ilane Fibleuil played five minutes but they were impactful defensively, including getting a steal and a contested layup on the fast break to force a Washington timeout. The bench in general rose to the occasion in a way they have not much this season. It also helped that Berke Buyuktuncel continues to look like he’s figuring some things out; with Bona out early, Buyuktuncel carried a lot of the offensive and defensive load and was more or less fine in the role, which is a great sign for him going forward.
And in the second half, the starters finally answered the bell. Adem Bona was an absolute monster in the second half, scoring 16 of his 22 points in the half as the Bruins made a pointed effort to go through him in the second half. That also opened things up elsewhere for the offense, and the rest of the team responded in kind with maybe their best offensive half of the season. Sebastian Mack, who played three really bad minutes in the first half and watched the team improve immensely once he was off the court, had all 10 of his points in the second half and looked much better on both ends of the court. Lazar Stefanovic shot a bit worse but was more aggressive and got to the line more often en route to his 15 points, and while Dylan Andrews did not score a bunch of points, he had six of his eight assists in the second half. The Bruins shot 56.5% in the second half en route to 50% for the entire game.
Reports of Cronin’s inability to coach were, as usual, greatly exaggerated, but I think this game still stands as an example of how this was always going to be a rough learning year for a really young team. You have a lot of new pieces, many of whom are new to college and some of whom are even new to the United States, and all learning how to play basketball at this level. There were going to be growing pains as this team learned how to play under Cronin’s system, but perhaps we just let our hopes get much too high following a strong showing at the Maui Invitational. The last few weeks have featured a basketball team learning how to play college basketball against more veteran teams, and needing something to galvanize them into coming together.
I thought back to Cronin’s first season, where the Bruins spent much of the first half of the season scuffling around. In the middle of the season, the Bruins got blown out by Oregon on the road, then a week later got blown out by Arizona State on the road. At that point, the Bruins were barely a game above .500, but those two losses seemed to galvanize the team and get them to play Cronin basketball. From there, the Bruins would go on a run of wins that had them on the doorstep of the NCAA Tournament before COVID cancelled the entire postseason. I don’t necessarily think this current team is capable of such a run - they’re much younger than that first Cronin team was by comparison - but this week was a good example of how every team in the conference is beatable. If the Bruins can start to lock in defensively and increase their intensity on both ends, they can find themselves on the winning end of more games going forward, and just seeing that growth would be huge for the program going forward.
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Nice write up, Dmitri. The kids played with energy from the opening tip. If they continue down this road, there will be growth. It’s unlikely to be linear and will likely have some head scratching defeats and the claims that Mick Cronin isn’t a good coach will return. They come out after any loss like worms after a rainstorm.
No aday mara. Was he injured, or just benched?
My message to Bruinbaskets: There will likely be more dark days between now and March. By all means, please keep your temper in check. Don't throw in the towels yet. Things will work out.
it seemed like pace was a huge factor for us. We were able to establish defense which helped us to control our offensive pace, allowing us to move the ball around efficiently while working an inside-out game for most of the second half. The pace of the U Dub offense helped us out as well, as they are not a frenetic fast-break team. I love how Bona was finally able to truly establish his post game, and he showed us several different looks, including a beautiful left-handed soft hook in the post. It is crazy that he had so few rebounds, though.
Of course you do. It didn't surprise me. It is not that you " rather enjoy it ". Our past difference on Kelly is what perpetuated your current view.
Thanks for the write up, Dmitri! It's nice to savor a win. I thought that Berke pick his game up and was very energetic, not Jaime energy, but still moving a lot.
He ought to have been replaced at a time when UCLA granted him an extension instead. In retrospect, I was indeed right all along. Everything happened since then proved it. Nevertheless, the past is the past. We all have to hunker down for what is likely a horrendously cold, losing season in the midwest come this fall. By the way, alums received a New Year message link to directly address our outgoing chancellor. I credited him for so much he has done for UCLA academically except for our football program. He apparently read our messages and I received a polite, rather diplomatic reply the other day. He said our donations are greatly appreciated and predicted our bruin football fans many happy, successful seasons in a new administration. To me, the wordings said it all.
Thank you for the perspective of your experience, Dmitri. The "curse of close losses" is often that they let an athlete or team not let themselves really see what's wrong "'cause we're so close, everything's fine" and a close loss to Marquette becomes a close loss to CSUN... getting embarrassed is a shock to the system that forces one to look in the mirror and choose either to quit or to "get real", embrace your pride, and fight.
So glad and gratifying to watch the Bruins individually and collectively choose the latter - bodes well for the future for this group since its a precondition for the growth that's needed. On to the Arizonas!
That you have to directly address UC Board of Regents and its hiring personnel about it. I was merely telling people what I did regarding the chancellor's link for donors and alums soliciting our New Year messages. As I said, we made it clear granting the extension was a sad, sad mistake.