I have some questions.
First off: what on earth is Mick Cronin doing? That’s the question UCLA fans, myself included, find themselves asking after another inexplicable road loss for the Bruins that was characterized by questionable rotations and a non-existent offense.
UCLA lost to Oregon 68-63. Maybe you should know that. It’s also in the title, I guess.
If you want to point at a specific moment where UCLA lost this game, it would be the start of the second half. At this point, Mick Cronin made the frankly-ridiculous decision to go with Cody Riley over Myles Johnson to start the second half. Predictably, Oregon went on a run that stretched a five-point halftime lead up to 13. And yes, Johnson was inserted back into the lineup at the tail end of that stretch, but it was too little too late. Oregon had opened things up and made things extremely difficult for the Bruins.
Credit where credit is due, the Bruins did battle back and even took the lead back with 5:27 left to play. Unfortunately, the amount of energy they expended in fighting back left them too tired for the final stretch (despite, you know, having some fresh legs available on the bench to play for a few minutes) and the Bruins would only score seven points in that final 5:27. Not ideal.
The minute distribution between Riley and Johnson has been something I have been harping on this issue for a good amount of time now, and it was at its worst during this game. Riley played for an absurd 27 minutes compared to a paltry 13 for Johnson, and this wasn’t a case where Johnson’s foul trouble was the issue. The problem in part is that Mick Cronin will pull Johnson as soon as he makes a mistake, while Riley is allowed to stink up the place defensively while providing minimal offense as much as he wants. And if you want to come at me with “but Riley had 12 points!” know that six of those points came in the final three minutes. Meanwhile, Johnson was able to match Riley in rebounds despite playing less than half the amount of time Riley did. At some point, I would hope the UCLA media will step up and ask what compromising information Riley possesses of Cronin that allows him to remain on the court because I am starting to run out of options.
Before I get to more questions, I will now note that Johnny Juzang only ended up playing 11 minutes in this game, as he reaggravated the ankle injury he suffered last week. Losing Juzang obviously hurts, as even with the fraction of playing time he still ended up with seven points, which put him fifth on the team in scoring. There’s probably a question of whether it even makes sense for Juzang to play in the next few games against Oregon State and Washington, especially considering he reinjured his ankles so quickly after the initial injury, but we’ll cross that bridge when we get there.
The injury to Juzang meant Jules Bernard, demoted to the bench thanks to the rise of Jaylen Clark, went on to play 31 minutes, which was a bit of a mixed bag. Playing David Singleton a bit more, who was a bit worse offensively but much better defensively, may have been a better choice. It also may have helped to do a better job of developing Peyton Watson so that he could play major minutes at this point in the season, but the five-star freshman still looks incredibly raw, which feels like the result of poor minutes allocation all season long. Or maybe even getting Jake Kyman more of a run in these games, especially because he has experience in these games and has played much better defensively this season.
At this point, I think my biggest takeaway from this season is that the spoil of riches UCLA has had on their bench has actually been a curse because Coach Cronin has spent the season showing that he struggles in these scenarios. It also puts last year’s Final Four run in more of a spotlight; UCLA had a short bench thanks to injuries and departures, which seems to suit Cronin more. Now that Cronin has more options, he is seemingly reverting to the habits the team developed last year instead of playing his best options. Jaylen Clark finally forced Cronin’s hand last week, and maybe this loss will force his hand on a few other options as the Bruins head into the NCAA Tournament.
And really, that’s what we should be focused on at this point. UCLA is making the NCAA Tournament. They’re not a bubble team like they’ve been in the past few years, which is a huge step forward. And with this loss, combined with Arizona running away with the conference, everything the Bruins do at this point should be in service of being at their best come March. If that means sitting Jaime Jaquez and his bum ankles for a game or two, so be it. Let Jules put up 100 shots until he finally gets back into a groove, that’s fine. Play Peyton Watson way more minutes in these final games just so I can know if my complaints are valid or not. But if UCLA, and especially Mick Cronin, want this season to be a success, they need to pivot into postseason mode now.
Cody Riley and Tyger Campbell led the Bruins with 12 points apiece. Jaylen Clark and Jaime Jaquez tied for the team lead with five rebounds, while Myles Johnson and Cody Riley tied for the team lead with two assists each. De’Vion Harmon led Oregon with 17 points.
Player of the Game: Jaime Jaquez - Hard choice here as no one on the team really played well, but Jaime had perhaps the best overall game, so I’ll go with him. But this feels like a Jaquez-by-default rather than him truly being the PotG.
The Offense is Offensive - UCLA is a jump-shooting team. This should not be a shock to anyone at this point. When the shots go down, it’s hard to defend, and when they don’t the offense looks bad. But what has struck me in these recent losses is that the offense does a really poor job of getting guys open for easy looks. Coach Cronin complained in the postgame that UCLA kept missing open players on offense, but when your offense is wholly predicated on having a bunch of players be spectacular in a one-on-one scenario repeatedly, then there’s a problem with the system in general.
UCLA’s Kryptonite: Athleticism - Another thing I have noticed in these recent losses is that UCLA really does struggle against teams with more athleticism than them. This again should be surprising; UCLA really does lack high-end athleticism thanks to the final Steve Alford years, and Mick Cronin has not had enough roster space to completely change that problem (though bringing in Jaylen Clark and Peyton Watson is at least a good sign that he understands the problem). But this issue seems like a problem that could be solved by playing the more athletic players like Watson and Johnson more than they have been. But that’s just me, the guy who isn’t paid millions of dollars to figure this out.
UCLA will again have to turn around for another quick game, as they take on Oregon State on Saturday. Tip-off is scheduled for 1:00 PM PT.