With the quarter winding down, UCLA men’s basketball’s season is preparing to play its most important games of the season. On this week’s episode of “Out of Bounds,” Sports editor Sam Connon, Daily Bruin senior staffer Ryan Smith and special guest assistant Sports editor Jack Perez break down the Bruins’ most recent loss to the Trojans on Saturday, as well as the path ahead of them in the Pac-12 and NCAA tournaments.
Sam Connon: Hi, my name is Sam Connon, and this is “Out of Bounds.”
SC: My name is Sam Connon. I’m the Sports editor at the Daily Bruin. Welcome back to “Out of Bounds,” the Daily Bruin Sports podcast. Today, I’m joined again by co-host Ryan Smith, Daily Bruin senior staffer, former Sports editor. Ryan, how’s it going?
Ryan Smith: You know it’s going good.
SC: Great. And today we are joined by our last guest of the quarter on our last episode of the quarter, assistant Sports editor Jack Perez. Jack, how’s it going?
Jack Perez: Oh, it’s going great Sam. I’m so excited to be here.
SC: I can tell you’ve been pining to get on the show for a while now.
JP: Since week one I wanted to be on it and Sam said, “Last week of the quarter, you can do it.” And now I’m here.
SC: It is all built up to this. This is really all everyone has been waiting for, some “Avengers: Endgame”-style climax right here with Jack Perez joining us. Today we’re really just going to be talking about men’s basketball. I know there’s a lot of other stuff going on in UCLA sports. Women’s basketball has the the week off before NCAAs and softball, baseball playing well, gymnastics continues to get perfect 10s and win meets, but really, it’s just men’s basketball-centric on today’s episode. Ryan and I were there on Saturday when they lost to USC, so we’ll start off with that before we get into Pac-12, NCAA stuff. So Ryan, what would you say is your biggest takeaway from Saturday’s game in USC?
RS: I’d say the biggest takeaway is that really the only thing that wasn’t working was the offense. And the thing is, if this team plays like this in the tournament, they’re gonna be fine. I don’t think if you woke up on Saturday feeling like they were gonna win the tournament, I’m not feeling any less confident thinking they’re going to be able to do the same thing. You know, the shooting was rough, the offense was slow, but again, the defense was so good and that’s really what this team has been doing well lately. So, you know, just keep that going.
SC: Yeah, USC, I know they didn’t shoot too well from the field for the entire game, but they did hit six of their last seven shots, so that is a little bit concerning to see such a great defensive effort from the Bruins just kind of, like, fade away towards the end. I know that crazy step-back by Jonah Mathews is obviously a dagger, but I mean, six out of seven to end the game is not really what you want to get from your defense. Jack, I don’t know, what did you think of the game against USC last week?
JP: You know, you’re only going to shoot 31.4% so many times. These guys’ averages will regress to the mean, and that’s a good sign for UCLA. The fact that they were never down by more than five throughout the whole game, USC did shoot pretty well in the second half, but in the first half, they were held to a pretty low shooting percentage. It just shows that Mick Cronin’s defense is really starting to click right now. Just keeping it in tight games, tight defensive games, is really solid for this team. We don’t want to go into a shootout, we know that, and to keep a team like USC to 54 points – while we only scored 52 – is still impressive and should still be commended. That being said, we shot really well from the free throw line, they didn’t, maybe that balances out during the tournament. So guys like Chris Smith and Jaime will have to step up and score a little bit more. Hopefully Jaime doesn’t shoot 1-for-8 every single time out there.
SC: Yeah, I know Cody Riley is part of the free throw resurgence. But, I mean, just a few weeks ago, he was shooting under 50%, and now he just basically can’t miss from the free throw line. Don’t want to jinx the guy but still, I mean, he went 5-of-6 against Arizona State, 7-of-8 against Arizona and then 5-of-6 against USC. And that one miss, he got the offensive rebound, UCLA ended up scoring on that possession. So you take a guy who’s just a bad free throw shooter – and Cronin keeps talking about how he’s a gym rat, how he’s in there all the time, always looking to improve – but that’s huge when you’re in these close games when you’re in these tight games, conference tournament, March Madness, free throw shooting is huge. Almost every game in March Madness winds up going to intentional fouls, free throws, someone at the line, having to make a comeback, having to slow someone down, having to hold a lead, and free throws are a huge part of that. So with Chris Smith shooting above 80% from the free throw line, Tyger Campbell’s getting better from the free throw line – after he had a bad game from the from line a few days ago, I know. But when your big men are shooting this well from the free throw line, that’s when you know you can win these tight games. I know you lose one by two against USC, that’s obviously tough, buzzer-beater 3s are definitely, those definitely sting. But it’s nice to see that in those final moments, UCLA has that clutch gene, really. I mean, Chris Smith, with a minute left, had that crazy shot, that hop-step in the post, it was to cut it to one, not every guy can do that. So even if UCLA doesn’t have a go-to scorer, a guy can hit a step-back 3 at the buzzer like Jonah Mathews, then you still have guys who can create their shots down low in the post, in the paint. So that’s definitely something promising to see. Ryan, any other takeaways from the USC games? Negative, positive?
RS: I just think when when you shoot 31% – that’s the team season low – and you’re up by one with nine seconds left, I think that just says a lot about where this team is and how it’s grown. I think if you told Mike Cronin he was gonna have his worst shooting day of the year and he was gonna have a chance to win it at the very last second, he would take that. And the things that are gonna make this team succeed – succeed in the postseason – are going to be the defense and taking care of the little things. And they don’t miss free throws, they play good defense. If they can keep doing that, they’ll be fine.
SC: Yeah, so the loss on Saturday locked in the Bruins for the No. 2 seed in the Pac-12 tournament. It didn’t really end up mattering because Oregon won Saturday night anyways, so they were gonna be the No. 2 seed no matter what. But No. 2 seed plays at 6 o’clock, Thursday night in Las Vegas. They will play the winner of Cal and Stanford, who are the No. 7 and No. 10 seeds. So, Jack, I know you and one of our staff writers, Dylan D’Souza, you guys broke down all the teams in the Pac-12 field. What can you tell us about Cal and Stanford specifically, and what matchup do you think would be better for UCLA?
JP: Well, in terms of what’s going to help us get into the NCAA tournament, we definitely want to play Stanford. You know, we haven’t beaten them this year at all, they’re on the bubble, we’re right ahead of them on the bubble. Stanford would definitely be the preferred matchup in terms of seeding. The team we definitely want to play would be Cal. We played Cal once this year at home, held them to 40 points, which was their season low. They really struggle to score a lot more than Stanford does and it just seems like that’s the school that you want to be facing in the tournament. It’s the team that has struggled out of the gate, they’ve struggled away from their home, whereas Stanford – especially early on in the season – looked like a top-25 team for sure. They’ve scuffled down the end a bit, but I think if UCLA was hoping for one of those teams to come through, it would be Cal.
SC: Yeah, I know UCLA held Cal to 40 points when they played here earlier this year, so that’s an offense you would like to play again if you’re Mick Cronin and know that you are able to stop them. And it’s not like there was a crazy home-court advantage for UCLA that day, they only scored 50 points. But yeah, there really wasn’t a huge fan, there wasn’t a huge crowd there, so it’s not like UCLA had that helping them hold down home court. It was just a tough, grind-it-out win, and I think you’d see a lot of the same should UCLA and Cal play again. Yeah, I mean, Cal, they beat Utah in overtime last week, but they got swept by Oregon, Oregon State. They lost a Washington a few weeks ago, who’s last place in the conference, so they’re not really anything special. But yeah, like you were saying, Stanford had some flashes earlier in the season so they’re definitely a real team, they’re not someone you can completely overlook. But yeah, to get into the tournament – the real tournament – that would definitely be a big resume booster, help bury Stanford a little bit and also help yourself in the process. So I don’t know Ryan, what do you think that UCLA has to do in the Pac-12 tournament this week to secure an at-large bid for March Madness?
RS: You know, you and I have talked about this for weeks at this point, but losing that game to USC in the finale really doesn’t help their case. At this point, you almost kind of hope that they get Stanford, considering they lost that team by 15 earlier in the year, maybe you blow them out the way you’re playing now and that’s a big-time resume booster in the case that you get to the final and then lose to a team like Oregon or USC. Because I think they have a good chance of getting through ASU in the second round if that’s who they end up playing. But really, I think they’re gonna have to win this tournament to feel safe. But yeah, I mean, if they’re going to get an at-large bid, you would hope that it would come by beating the highest seeds possible on the way to – then losing in – the final.
SC: Yeah, I mean, I don’t think they have to win the Pac-12 tournament to secure a spot. I don’t think they need the automatic qualifier for the Pac-12. I mean, obviously, they’d be a lock at that point because they’d automatically get in. But I think if UCLA beat Stanford – and basically kicks Stanford out of the running – and kind of the cards fall their way in other conference tournaments, I think that’ll set them up for a First Four appearance. But then if they win in the semifinals against Arizona State – probably, or it could be Colorado – if they win that semifinals matchup and just make it to the finals, I think they are a lock to get in as a bye, no First Four appearance this time. So I think that would pretty much do it for them because losing to Oregon or USC or Arizona in the Pac-12 finals won’t be too awful, honestly, like, I don’t think that looks that bad. So I would really just say, “Make it to the finals, you’re good. Make it to the semis, flip a coin, see what happens.” So I don’t know, Jack, what’s what’s your opinion on this team’s NCAA chances?
JP: If we make it to the finals, I believe – especially if we play Oregon and we play them well – I think we’re basically a lock to avoid the First Four even and make it into the tourney as probably a No. 11, maybe even stretch in as a No. 10 seed. If we play ASU in the semifinals, we should be able to beat them. It’s quite possible though, ASU did beat us earlier in the year, so it could be a toss-up, especially on a neutral court. The worst case scenario – which is if we lose to Stanford in the second round, in the quarterfinals on Thursday – is I believe we might drop out of the tournament entirely. Our NET ranking is in the 70s right now, Stanford is currently in the 30s. They have – yeah, surprisingly – but I think especially with them being a bubble team, and if a couple conference tournaments don’t go our way around the country, I could see UCLA falling to the NIT.
SC: Yeah, at this point, an NIT bid is basically a lock if UCLA doesn’t make March Madness. But I mean, there’s a lot going right for UCLA at this point. There’s still a wide-open door really. I hope they make the final and play Oregon just because I’m dying to see UCLA-Oregon again. Not that UCLA would make it any tighter, but just because I want to see Payton Pritchard again. That dude is amazing. So, Ryan, what’s the Pac-12 team, not that you think UCLA could beat, but just the most entertaining team to watch, the team that you would want to watch the most?
RS: I mean, obviously, Oregon’s the most fun, like you said, Payton Pritchard’s just everything you want to watch. But I have enjoyed the UCLA-Arizona State matchups this year. That first game was a shootout, I’m a big fan of the shootout-type games. But I mean, the revenge game against USC would obviously be really fun too, any game with Arizona is great. There’s a lot of ways this could go where it’d be great for all the fans. So nothing I’m really looking for, but I’m just excited to see how this all unfolds.
SC: Yeah, I know that if UCLA makes the final plays USC, that would be pretty epic because I mean, you had Chris Smith postgame on Saturday say that he wants to play USC again in the tournament. That’s before he knew that USC would be the No. 4 seed and that they’d be on the other side of the bracket, but still, he said he hopes that they play again, he hopes the Trojans come in cocky. So that would be really fun to see them play again. So I don’t know, Jack, do you have any final thoughts on the Pac-12 tournament this week?
JP: I’m really interested in that 4-5-12 quadrant. USC, obviously, has shown out and beat us to get that bye, which they might have fallen to the No. 5 had they not. So now, this forced Arizona to play Washington in the first round, which I think is probably the most exciting matchup of that opening round. I think the team that comes from there – while they do have to go through Oregon to get to the finals – is in a really good spot. Whether it’s USC or Arizona, both are probably locks to make tournament right now, but I think both can enhance their seeding a lot by possibly beating Oregon, and then possibly beating UCLA or Arizona State in the final.
SC: Yeah, I know Oregon is the heavy favorite, and for good reason. They’ve probably been the best team in the Pac-12 start to finish, day one to now. So we’ll see how it ends up going there, who wins the Pac-12 tournament. You should all read the scouting report by Jack and Dylan. That will be on dailybruin.com on the sports page, so keep an eye out for that. There will be coverage all weekend long when UCLA does get going, starting Thursday. I will be there in Las Vegas to cover that so, yeah, keep an eye out for all our coverage, follow us on Twitter, thanks again for listening. Thanks again to Omar Said for producing this week’s episode, a bit of a condensed timeline this time to get it out before Pac-12s start, so thanks to him. If you have any questions for us for next episode – which won’t be for a few weeks – feel free to tweet them at us, email, find any way to contact us, really. So yeah, thanks again for listening and see you in a few weeks.
SC: This week’s episode of “Out of Bounds” has been hosted by me, Sam Connon, and Ryan Smith. Thanks again to our guest, Jack Perez. We were produced and edited this week by Omar Said and fact-checked by Zoe Willoughby. “Out of Bounds” is a Daily Bruin Sports podcasting production.