Coach Mick Cronin said there was only one positive thing he took from his team’s loss to USC on Saturday.
It was the first time he noticed the culture change in his new program since he arrived in Westwood.
“I felt like I was back in my other locker rooms at Cincinnati, where losing wasn’t acceptable,” Cronin said. “That was a big shift to see reaction, to see how upset the guys were. You’re going on the road on our second senior-day sellout, expecting to win, from two months ago when nobody would have expected you to have a chance.”
And less than a week after the loss to its crosstown rival, No. 2 seed UCLA men’s basketball (19-12, 12-6 Pac-12) will travel to Las Vegas for the Pac-12 tournament, facing off against No. 10 seed California (14-18, 7-11) on Thursday with a spot in the semifinals on the line.
A win against the Trojans would have marked the Bruins’ eighth in a row – their 12th in 14 games – and potentially locked them into an NCAA tournament at-large bid. But as UCLA heads to Las Vegas, it will likely have to string together a few more wins to avoid settling for a National Invitation Tournament bid in the coming weeks.
UCLA’s NET ranking of No. 76 sits only above Utah, Washington State and California in the Pac-12, while ESPN’s Joe Lunardi still has the Bruins listed as “on the bubble” – indicating their NCAA tournament status is largely still in the air.
“We kind of forgot (how losing) felt,” said freshman guard/forward Jaime Jaquez Jr. “We got a taste of what it feels like to go on a hot streak, and losing is not something we take well to. It’s a good reminder, that’s not something we ever want to feel again.”
While Cronin’s players voiced their excitement to return to their previous winning ways, the first-year coach said the Bruins will need to clean up their offensive game plan if they are to prolong their stay in Sin City.
Against USC, UCLA shot just 28.6% from the field in the opening half and coughed up the ball nine times in the second half en route to its second-lowest offensive output all year.
“It was a low-scoring game,” Jaquez said. “When you have nine turnovers in a low-scoring game, it’s like a million.”
The Bruins’ lowest-scoring game was their 50-40 victory over the Golden Bears on Jan. 19, the only time the two teams met this season.
After Saturday’s loss to USC – which ended UCLA’s chance for at least a share of the Pac-12 regular-season title – junior guard Chris Smith said the Bruins’ first opponent in Las Vegas should be ready for a “pummeling.”
Smith walked back those sentiments somewhat Tuesday but said he still believes in his team’s ability to win games in the tournament.
“I was just really mad, I don’t like losing,” Smith said Tuesday. “I let my emotions get the best of me. I could feel the energy in the locker room, nobody was happy with the results we got. Everyone was pretty pissed off. After losing, you got to be mad, you have to be looking to figure out what you did wrong.”
And though Cronin said he had poked fun at Smith’s aggressive postgame comments, he did have one precaution for his leading scorer.
“We might want to leave that to (redshirt sophomore forward) Cody (Riley),” Cronin said. “You got to be able to bench press a certain amount to talk about pummeling anybody.”
Tipoff against Cal is set for 6 p.m. on Thursday.