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UCLA men’s basketball loss to rival USC highlights team’s defensive issues

Redshirt senior guard Prince Ali leads all active UCLA men’s basketball players in career steals with 90. Ali also shares the team lead in total steals this season with 21. (Amy Dixon/Daily Bruin senior staff)

By Sam Connon

Jan. 14, 2020 12:44 a.m.

Coach Mick Cronin didn’t pull any punches when he was asked about the Bruins’ defense against the Trojans on Saturday.

“We’re not a good defensive team,” Cronin said.

And the numbers line up with the first-year coach’s claim.

UCLA men’s basketball (8-8, 1-2 Pac-12) fell to 0-8 in games in which it allowed more than 73 points Saturday when it lost 74-63 to USC. Redshirt senior guard Prince Ali said the Bruins were unable to stop the Trojans down low, and USC’s 36 points in the paint gave it the momentum needed to steal a win at Pauley Pavilion.

“I think we had some defensive screw-ups,” Ali said. “(The Trojans) started getting the ball in the paint and getting a lot of second-chance points. That helped them out, and that helped them with their confidence, and they just started making a bunch of shots and won the game.”

Cronin also said USC’s eight second-chance points killed UCLA down the stretch, and that it all stemmed back to over-rotating on help defense outside.

“The bottom line is, if you can’t guard the guy with the ball, and he continually either shoots it and makes it in your face or he goes by you, you’re constantly in rotation,” Cronin said. “And if you’re in rotation, they’re going to tip (the ball) in.”

On average, Cronin’s last 10 Cincinnati teams ranked No. 18 in the defensive KenPom rankings. UCLA’s average ranking during that stretch was No. 84, and its lowest spot since the rankings started in 2002 was No. 156 in 2003.

But 16 games into Cronin’s first season in Westwood, the Bruins own the No. 221 defense in the country.

Junior guard Chris Smith said he couldn’t pick out a single reason UCLA’s defense has regressed, but he did propose a simple fix.

“I don’t know if I have a specific answer, but we just have to put up all the effort, especially on defense,” Smith said. “That’s all defense really is – effort.”

Smith led the Bruins with 16 points Saturday and is averaging 18.3 points per game in Pac-12 play. While that is a 13.4 point increase on his mark from the last conference season, Cronin said he needs more out of his leading scorer on the defensive end.

“(Smith) is a much-improved player from who he was last year – I’m asking him to do everything,” Cronin said. “He had great production on the stat sheet, but defensively, he really struggled tonight. So did his teammates.”

Smith co-led UCLA with two steals Saturday, but Ali still co-leads the team with 21 steals on the season. The guard’s 90 career steals are more than double his nearest teammate.

The Bruins’ most experienced defender said his team is a better defensive unit than the one that showed up against the Trojans.

“We gave them a cushion that I don’t think they should have gotten,” Ali said. “I don’t think we played the way we should have played, so yeah, it’s tough.”

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Sam Connon | Alumnus
Connon joined the Bruin as a freshman in 2017 and contributed until he graduated in 2021. He was the Sports editor for the 2019-2020 academic year, an assistant Sports editor for the 2018-2019 academic year and spent time on the football, men's basketball, women's basketball, baseball, men's soccer, cross country, men's golf and women's golf beats, while also contributing movie reviews for Arts & Entertainment.
Connon joined the Bruin as a freshman in 2017 and contributed until he graduated in 2021. He was the Sports editor for the 2019-2020 academic year, an assistant Sports editor for the 2018-2019 academic year and spent time on the football, men's basketball, women's basketball, baseball, men's soccer, cross country, men's golf and women's golf beats, while also contributing movie reviews for Arts & Entertainment.
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