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UCLA Falls to North Carolina in Sweet 16, 73-66
Mick Cronin's rotations did the team in, one last time.
Remember how I spent all year screaming about Mick Cronin’s rotations, and how they would eventually cost this team a big game?
Remember how literally every UCLA beat writer was also screaming about Mick Cronin’s rotations and how they would eventually cost this team a big game?
Remember how everyone in the world could see what the specific problems were with Mick Cronin’s rotations and wondered if they would eventually cost this team a big game?
I am just so absolutely tired of being right.
UCLA lost to North Carolina by the final score of 73-66 to exit the NCAA Tournament, and you can point to one reason why: Mick Cronin and his rotations.
It’s a really simple formula for UCLA; if the Bruins play good defense, they tend to win the game. And yet against an explosive North Carolina squad, Cronin refused to play his athletic defenders and instead relied on a host of poor athletes. The Bruins had a depth advantage and just refused to take advantage of it. Four starters played 38 minutes, and Cody Riley somehow played 25. Myles Johnson played 12, and I’ll let you guess which minutes featured UCLA’s best defense and made things difficult for the Tar Heels. Jaylen Clark and Peyton Watson, two long, athletic defensive stalwarts who also were effective defensively, played seven minutes combined. Jake Kyman saw action and David Singleton did not.
This does not make sense unless you’ve watched this UCLA team all season. The Bruins have had an enviable depth that allowed them to weather injury stretches to various players, but in-game Mick Cronin has run a depressingly-short bench, instead choosing to ride his starters for most of the season. When everyone is playing well, this is fine, but when you have guys who are clearly not 100% (Jaime Jaquez) or are such a liability on defense that the opponent is making a point to hunt him on every single possession (Cody Riley) this becomes a problem. And this game desperately cried out for more of the Johnson/Clark/Watson trio. Caleb Love had an out-of-body experience en route to a game-high 30 points, but he was able to get rolling thanks to a targeted attack on Riley, who did his best revolving door impression all game. What was particularly frustrating is whenever UCLA had one of that trio in the game and they made a series of good defensive plays, they would immediately be subbed out to put Riley back in.
Frankly, this is the type of loss that should act as a wake-up call to Cronin. When he was hired, a lot of people harped on Cronin’s lack of tournament success, but that was never a problem for me because the caliber of talent he could get at UCLA would far exceed what he could get in Cincinnati, and would contribute to more tournament winning just by default. After all, Steve Alford was able to make three Sweet 16s while here, it’s not that difficult. But the big question going forward is whether Cronin can actually take advantage of that increased talent. It is hard to look back at the totality of this season and say that he succeeded on that front, especially in the big games that mattered.
Here’s the kicker that is going to eat at UCLA fans for a while: even despite Cronin coaching this game like a blind man, this was still a winnable game! The Bruins were leading with under two minutes remaining and were tied with 1:30. But the tired legs of the Bruins caught up to them in those final minutes. Armando Bacot made an excellent hustle play to save a long rebound that led to an extra North Carolina possession, which Love immediately made UCLA pay for by hitting a three. The Bruins went down the court and Jaime Jaquez, who has struggled from distance all year and was struggling in particular down the stretch as his ankle was clearly limiting his explosiveness, missed on a three-point attempt. Love again came down the court and let a three rip to take the lead, Jaquez missed a layup, and that was really all she wrote. The Bruins would give up one final offensive rebound and second-chance point on the next play because basketball has a funny way of showing you repeatedly all the ways in which you failed, and the game was essentially over.
Since this is the end and I will focus on the future later, I want to give this team credit for having a relatively successful season. As I stated last Saturday, the goal each year should be for this team to get a protected seed and reach the Sweet 16, at which point things become a coin toss. On that front, UCLA did succeed, and the players should get credit for that. They never wavered despite all of the adversity they dealt with this year, from big injuries to various players to the COVID pause shutting things down right when the team had a rhythm (and preventing the original meeting between these two teams, that’s a fun what-if). They clearly loved playing with each other, and they represented the four letters well, which is all you can ask for.
The Bruins are going to enter the offseason with more questions than anyone likely expected, but that is the nature of the game at a blue blood basketball school. Mick Cronin returned UCLA back to that level. Now to see whether he has what it takes to get over the hump.
Jules Bernard led the Bruins with 16 points and tied Jaime Jaquez for the team lead with five rebounds. Tyger Campbell led the Bruins with six rebounds. Caleb Love led the Tar Heels with 30 points.
Player of the Game, non-Caleb Love Edition: Jules Bernard - UCLA got sporadically good play from the starters, but the only Bruin who had a consistently good game was Jules. In what is likely his final game as a Bruin, Bernard played well, getting to his spots, hitting a few three-pointers, and generally playing solid defense. Bernard really came into his own under Cronin these past few years, and the Bruins will miss his contributions going forward.
Cronin Fails the Riley Test One Last Time - Nothing with how this game played out would lead you to believe that Cody Riley should play the majority of the center minutes, and yet that’s exactly what happened. Worse, not only did Riley play the majority of the post minutes, but his 25 minutes was more than Myles Johnson, Jaylen Clark, and Peyton Watson played combined. For a defensive coach, Cronin was asleep at the wheel and allowed North Carolina to repeatedly target Riley in order to generate good offensive looks. This was a problem all year, and it cost the Bruins a trip to the Elite Eight.
Jaquez’s Ankle Wasn’t a Problem Until it Was - That’s the best way I can describe Jaime Jaquez in this game. Jaquez looked good in the first half, making the spins and pump fakes that had become his bread-and-butter over the past month, but the switch flipped in the second half, as Jaquez was limited to only two points, which he got on a breakaway dunk. Perhaps adrenaline allowed him to push through the first half, but Jaquez was ineffective through the second, lacking the explosiveness and craftiness that makes him such a dangerous player, and seemed to be forcing things as the game got late. I think the ankle played a major part here, and it’s another data point for why everything past the Sweet 16 is such a crapshoot.
The Bruins head into a pivotal offseason for the Mick Cronin era. I’ll take a look at the future and what questions Cronin will need to answer next week at some point, likely once I give this game some space.