UCLA Escapes Utah with 63-58 Victory
The Rocky Mountain Road Trip is always hard, but the Bruins refused to make it easier.
I don’t really have it in me to do a traditional post-game piece, so instead, I want to focus on a few points in a bit of detail.
UCLA’s Offense is Broken
I don’t want to speak ill of an opponent, but Utah is not a good team. The Utes are now 1-8 in what is a fairly weak Pac-12, and their underlying numbers are nothing to write home about. What stands out the most about them is their defense, or specifically their lack of defense - the Utes rank 170th in adjusted defensive efficiency according to KenPom, so this should have been something of a get-right game for the Bruins, especially with their best player, the 7’ Brandon Carlson, not playing.
Instead, UCLA had another nightmare of a game. Tyger Campbell had another poor outing, going 2-10 from the field while putting up the same number of assists as he did turnovers (2). Jaime Jaquez was a bit more aggressive than his last outing against Oregon, but that just led to a 3-9 performance (oh, and both Campbell and Jaquez were 0-3 from three). Cody Riley did not score until midway through the second half. Jules Bernard did most of his damage at the free-throw line, which is a good thing because he was abysmal from the field. The Bruins in total shot 38.3% from the field, and that was mostly buoyed by an excellent performance by Johnny Juzang, who put up 28 points on 9-13 shooting.
Increasingly in this game, it did not feel like UCLA had any idea what they wanted to do on offense, with the only consistency coming from Juzang hitting tough shots. The Utes were able to force the Bruins into tough shots and bad turnovers less due to their own ability and more because UCLA was all too willing to let Utah dictate the terms of the engagement. Considering the talent gap between these two teams, that’s not a good look.
Maybe more than the previous two seasons under Mick Cronin, this feels like a UCLA team that plays more individual basketball than any team concept, and thus opens the group up to more volatility in performance if players struggle. When things click the offense looks great, but nothing is truly clicking right now, and it’s a problem.
The Interior Problem
UCLA has a lot of defensive problems (see: UCLA’s three guards doing their best turnstile impressions) but one that has stood out to me is the struggles of UCLA’s big men. Seeing Cody Riley struggle at times is not shocking considering everything we’ve seen from him over his UCLA career (though to give him a shout out, he was by far UCLA’s best defender in this game) but the poor defense we’ve seen from Myles Johnson has been shocking in its totality. UCLA fans knew Johnson was going to struggle on the offensive end, but the book on him was that he would more than make up for that with his defense.
But that hasn’t transpired, and what it looks like we’re seeing is that UCLA’s opponents have a much better idea of how to attack him than teams were ever able to cook up in the Big 10. Specifically, teams have routinely drawn Johnson out to the outside and made him try to guard in space, and this has predictably led to bad outcomes for the UCLA defense. Johnson just lacks the lateral quickness to be a defensive threat that far from the basket, and Cronin has not developed a solid defensive strategy to counteract this. Teams have also utilized this strategy against Riley, which has been relatively effective as well.
UCLA has a general solution to this problem but has been reluctant to go to it. That would be to go with Jaylen Clark at the center spot, giving up some size for much better defensive coverage. Paired with Peyton Watson, they’re a potent defensive combination that can better cover the defensive shortcomings of their teammates. Now, obviously, Clark was not available for this game, but this would have been an interesting opportunity to try Watson at that center spot, and if he held his own there you could then use Clark on whoever is the best offensive player on the opposing team.
Either way, this is something Mick Cronin is going to need to figure out, and in a hurry.
Player of the Game: Johnny Juzang
Seriously, this game is lost if Juzang is even a fraction worse than he was in this game. There seemed to be a conscious decision on the part of UCLA to have Juzang pt less effort in on the defensive end in order to carry the offense, as his net points was barely above zero for the game and he had both the highest efficiency rating and poorest defensive rating for any of the major rotation players in this game.
Still, when Juzang is in his bag like he was in this game, you are absolutely willing to take the good with the bad, and Juzang was way more good than bad in this one.
Johnny Juzang led the Bruins with 28 points. Jules Bernard led the team with seven rebounds, while Jaime Jaquez led the team in assists with three. Lazar Stefanovic led the Utes with 18 points.
The Bruins will need to put this one behind them in a hurry and focus of their next game on Saturday, where they will finish the Rocky Mountain Road Trip against a very game Colorado squad. Tip-off is scheduled for 6:00 PM PT.