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Young players continue to carry men’s basketball to success

Junior guard Chris Smith leads UCLA men’s basketball with 13.3 points per game this season. Smith scored 20-plus points in each of the Bruins’ outings last weekend. (Daanish Bhatti/Daily Bruin)

By Sam Connon

Feb. 18, 2020 5:00 p.m.

Mick Cronin said after Saturday’s win over the Huskies that 98% of college players shouldn’t go one-and-done.

Junior guard Chris Smith, redshirt sophomore forward Cody Riley and sophomore guard David Singleton were waiting off camera when their coach made those remarks, but Cronin said he wasn’t trying to send any subliminal messages.

“I didn’t know they were sitting there,” Cronin said.

After starting conference play 1-3, UCLA men’s basketball (15-11, 8-5 Pac-12) has won seven of its last nine outings. The Bruins’ only graduating rotation players – redshirt seniors guard Prince Ali and forward Alex Olesinski – combined to play just 14 minutes across their two games last weekend, putting much of the load on the underclassmen to carry the team down the stretch.

Smith is in his third year with the program, but he only recently turned 20 years old, since he left high school early to enroll at UCLA. Cronin said the guard has taken major strides this season, but also that he is an example of a player who has a lot more to work on at the college level before going pro.

“With (Smith) in particular, as he’s improved his selection of his attacks offensively – and he’s still got a ways to go with it – that’s what’s helped him the most,” Cronin said. “I think he has great self awareness, so he has humility, so it allows him to be coachable.”

Smith played a team-high 40 minutes in UCLA’s overtime win over Washington State on Thursday, leading the team with 23 points and 13 rebounds. He also posted 20 points against Washington, upping his season average to 13.3 points per game.

Redshirt freshman guard Tyger Campbell scored two points Saturday against the Huskies, but his six assists led the Bruins. Two of those assists were to Smith, and Campbell said he was just trying to feed the hot hand and give his team its best chance to win.

“I really want (Smith) to shoot,” Campbell said. “There’s no fakeness around it or anything of me just trying to keep him confident. I really believe in him and I really believe in how he’s playing. He’s playing really good right now.”

Campbell has played more than 32 minutes per game in five straight games for the first time in his collegiate career, and the point guard is averaging 12.6 points and 5.4 assists per game during that stretch.

Freshman guard/forward Jaime Jaquez Jr. said he has noticed Smith evolve over the course of the season, and he also tries his best to encourage his teammate to keep shooting.

“I just tell (Smith) when he’s hot, just keep shooting the ball,” Jaquez said. “I know (redshirt sophomore forward) Jalen (Hill) and (Riley) tell him to shoot the ball because they know when he shoots it, we’re going to get his rebounds. He shoots it, he’s not scared of missing it – we’re going to get his rebounds.”

Jaquez is averaging 4.7 rebounds over his last six games, while Hill and Riley have combined to average about 11 in that same span. Overall, UCLA has gotten 74.1% of its rebounds from its underclassmen, and Riley said he enjoys crashing the boards with other great rebounders.

“When (Hill and I) are in the game together and I look over my shoulder and I see him down there fighting, scrapping with me, you know, that’s a great feeling to have,” Riley said.

UCLA and its young lineup will leave for a road trip to the Mountain Time Zone on Wednesday before tipping off with Utah on Thursday.

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Sam Connon | Sports senior staff
Connon is currently a Sports senior staff writer for the football and men's basketball beats. He was the Sports editor for the 2019-2020 academic year, an assistant Sports editor on the baseball, men's soccer, cross country, men's golf and women's golf beats from 2018-2019 and a reporter on the baseball and women's basketball beats from 2017-2018. Connon also contributes movie reviews for Arts & Entertainment and co-hosts Daily Bruin Sports' weekly podcast, "Out of Bounds." Connon is a rising fourth-year Communication student from Winchester, Massachusetts.
Connon is currently a Sports senior staff writer for the football and men's basketball beats. He was the Sports editor for the 2019-2020 academic year, an assistant Sports editor on the baseball, men's soccer, cross country, men's golf and women's golf beats from 2018-2019 and a reporter on the baseball and women's basketball beats from 2017-2018. Connon also contributes movie reviews for Arts & Entertainment and co-hosts Daily Bruin Sports' weekly podcast, "Out of Bounds." Connon is a rising fourth-year Communication student from Winchester, Massachusetts.
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