UCLA Officially in Panic Mode, Loses to Washington State, 81-73
All those warning signs during the winning streak have become full-blown DANGER buttons.
On Wednesday, I asked in the Buzzer Beater whether UCLA Bruins basketball was broken. I didn’t have a strong opinion either way but the trend line on the season had been going steadily down since Chris Smith’s injury. Lucky for me, the Bruins came out on Thursday and answered my question definitively:
Yes, the current iteration of UCLA basketball is broken.
It is hard to come away with any other takeaway in the aftermath of an 81-73 loss to Washington State that was nowhere near as close as the final score would indicate. UCLA looked uninterested in long stretches of the game, failed to play anything close to respectable defense, and could not make a shot to save their lives. It’s the third loss in four games, and really it’s just another in a long string of poor performances from a team that has finally lost the ability to rally around the loss of their team leader.
I also do not know if there’s anything we can really take away from this game that isn’t readily apparent just from the box score. Cody Riley made a return from an ankle injury that kept him out against Southern Cal, but he did not look great, only scoring four points and grabbing one rebound while fouling out in 10 minutes of play. The Bruins ended the game shooting 44.1% from the field but a lot of that was buoyed by a frantic final stretch that saw the Bruins try to claw back into the game; more true to their night was UCLA’s numbers from distance, as they shot 5-20 from three-point range. The UCLA defense allowed Washington State to shoot 47.1% from the field, and just because I like to keep drumming the “I keep pointing this stuff out” beat, the Cougars shot a blistering 59.1% (13-22) from deep because UCLA is just bad at guarding the three-point line.
Really I’m of two trains of thought regarding this game, both revolving around Coach Mick Cronin. The first thought is: well what did we expect? With the loss of Chris Smith for the season, Cronin lost his best all-around player and was left with a bunch of good but flawed players from the Alford era. Just look around the remaining roster and realize that Cronin is being forced to play a bunch of guys in roles that they are not suited for. Jaime Jaquez is a great complementary piece, but he is not a go-to guy. Tyger Campbell is a great passing point guard, but he’s not a consistent scorer. Cody Riley and (when back on the team) Jalen Hill are pretty good on one end of the court but are dreadfully inconsistent on the other. Jake Kyman is an excellent shooter but gets targeted constantly by opposing offenses. David Singleton is a smart player but lacks the tools to impact the game outside of his three-point shot. Jules Bernard has boundless energy but struggles to harness it.
I don’t think it’s a surprise that the three players Mick Cronin brought in are the ones most rising to the occasion. Johnny Juzang gets a lot of hate from many corners of the UCLA fanbase, but to me, it’s pretty clear that he’s the most talented player remaining on the roster by a solid margin. Juzang led the team in points and rebounds, was solid on the defensive end, and hit all eight of his free throws. With the Bruins shorthanded, Cronin has turned more and more to Juzang to carry the load, and it is honestly not the worst idea in the world, considering the alternatives.
The other two freshmen acquitted themselves well. Jaylen Clark had perhaps the best game of his young UCLA career, with six points on 3-4 shooting acting as a nice bonus to the solid defense he was playing all game. Mac Etienne had a bit of a come-down from his excellent debut performance last week, but he still looked solid enough to be a contributor in this stretch run. If you want a positive from this game, consider that the two freshmen are looking more and more like important contributors this season, and should be solid pieces down the line.
Let’s go back to Mick Cronin, however, because now we need to talk about my other major thought at this point. See, I know Cronin is just as aware as I am of the flaws in this roster. He was not dealt a great hand and is very much trying to fit some square pegs into round holes.
My question is: why?
Cronin clearly wants to have a defensive team - it’s his background and it’s what UCLA fans expect from him - but at some point you have to tailor your gameplan to the personnel you have, and right now UCLA has a lot of solid offensive players who are having to put more and more of their effort in at the defensive end. Mick Cronin hasn’t had one of his best weapons on that end since the calendar turned, and has been without his best interior defender the past few days. With a team that is already forced to play Tyger Campbell major minutes, there really is only so much that Cronin can do to fix the defense, so I’m wondering at what point he just pivots this season to focus on an offense that was pretty darn good up until this recent stretch. I know it goes against everything in his nature, but adaptability is one of the hallmarks of a great coach, so let’s see if Cronin has what it takes.
I normally don’t talk about post-game press conferences here, but Mick Cronin did say something that rang true to me. He mentioned in the post-game that some players have a higher opinion of themselves than reality suggests, and honestly, I can see it. That’s the hallmark of a Steve Alford team, and most of the guys on the roster still are Steve Alford players. Is it that surprising that we saw a Steve Alford loss here? Cronin spent all of last year trying to break these habits, but as we’ve seen this year, any sustained success causes those habits to flood back in.
I don’t know what it will take to break the team of that mindset, but Coach Cronin better figure it out soon, because right now the team is pretty broken.
Johnny Juzang led the Bruins with 25 points and seven rebounds. Tyger Campbell led the team with five assists. Isaac Bonton led the Cougars with 26 points.
Player of the Game (Sad UCLA Edition): Jaylen Clark - Clark saw 20+ minutes for the first time all season, and he responded to that increased level of trust with a solid outing. With UCLA generally playing poorly, I wanted to call out something positive here…
Actual Player of the Game: Isaac Bonton - Because Bonton was far and away the best player on the court. Bonton rose to the occasion in a major way, with 26 points on 8-18 shooting including 4-7 from three, while also grabbing five rebounds and five assists. He was the emotional anchor for the Cougars, and every time it seemed like UCLA was ready to make a game of things, Bonton would hit a big shot or make a great play, keeping the Bruins at arm’s length.
Jalen Hill is missed - What Jalen Hill brings to the defense cannot be understated. The Bruins were outrebounded in this game by a pretty sizeable margin, but more importantly, the Cougars were able to get solid looks from distance in part because the UCLA defense has no interior presence to protect the weaker perimeter defenders at the moment. Without Hill in the lineup, the UCLA defense is forced to crash down on any drives, which leaves shooters open from the outside. Washington State did not expose this idea, they were just the latest team to take advantage of it this year.
The Bruins will have to regroup quickly, as they take on Washington on Saturday.