UCLA men’s basketball reexamines defense after first conference loss of season
Junior guard Jules Bernard and UCLA men’s basketball fell for the first time in Pac-12 play this season at Stanford. The Bruins’ defense let in a layup with no time remaining as their winning streak came to an end. (Antonio Martinez/Daily Bruin)
By Sam Connon
Jan. 28, 2021 1:02 p.m.
The Bruins were one play away from starting 9-0 in the Pac-12, but they let it slip away at the buzzer.
That mental lapse with time expiring came on the defensive side of the ball, something not typical of teams coached by coach Mick Cronin in the past, but increasingly common from this year’s squad.
No. 23 UCLA men’s basketball (12-3, 8-1 Pac-12) allowed Stanford’s leading scorer, forward Oscar Da Silva, to get wide open on an inbounds play and sink its hopes at a perfect conference season. While the Bruins held the Cardinal to 58 points in regulation – the second game in a row in which their opponent scored fewer than 60 points in 40 minutes – they still finished the weekend with the 84th-ranked defense in the country, according to KenPom.
Across his final nine seasons at Cincinnati before coming to Westwood, Cronin’s defenses hadn’t finished worse than 28th in the nation.
Cronin said his players’ effort is there, but the recent influx of turnovers and missed shots have made it difficult for the Bruins to get set and run their defense the way they want.
“When we take care of the ball … we’re allowed to set our defense and it puts a lot of pressure on our opponents,” Cronin said Tuesday. “And it’s not just your turnover numbers – I believe in shooting turnovers. … I just think sometimes we’re really too careless with our shot selection and with taking care of the ball.”
UCLA had topped 12 turnovers in just one of its previous 10 games entering its road trip to the Bay Area, but it did so against both California and Stanford in back-to-back contests last weekend. The Bruins also had a stretch of 11 straight missed shots in the first half against the Cardinal, and everyone not named Johnny Juzang – the sophomore guard who scored 27 points Saturday – combined to shoot 34.1% from the field in the game.
The offensive mishaps aren’t the only explanations for UCLA’s un-Cronin-like defensive reputation, as the big man rotation of redshirt juniors forward Cody Riley and forward/center Jalen Hill has also come into question in recent weeks.
Riley continues to start over Hill, who has yet to make a start this season, and the two are averaging just about 20 minutes per game apiece. Hill’s 96.3 defensive rating is 3.4 points better than Riley’s, his defensive box plus/minus of 2.6 is more than double Riley’s mark of 1.1 and he has nearly five times as many blocks per 40 minutes than Riley.
Outside of the bigs, the Bruins have been unable to stop their opponents’ leading scorers. Da Silva was leading the Pac-12 in points per game prior to last weekend, and he scored 26 against UCLA on Saturday. And with guard Matt Bradley out for California on Thursday, it was forward Grant Anticevich who paced the Golden Bears with 21 points against the Bruins.
“I think we have to key in on main players,” said junior guard Jules Bernard. “Even if you play the best defense you can, sometimes good players, they make great plays and make great shots. So I think our focus is just making the best players try to have the hardest games, you know, play the hardest defense against them and make their night tough.”
UCLA had been ramping up its preparation for Oregon in practice early this week, with the Bruins and Ducks scheduled to play Thursday and Monday. But instead of facing Pac-12 Player of the Year contender guard Chris Duarte and the rest of the Ducks’ inside-out offense, both matchups have been postponed because of COVID-19 issues within Oregon’s program.
Instead, Oregon State will be next up for UCLA on Saturday. But regardless of who comes to Pauley Pavilion next, sophomore guard/forward Jaime Jaquez Jr. said the Bruins have to learn from their recent defensive failings while not letting those plays haunt them for too long – especially the one at the buzzer against the Cardinal.
“Overall, we don’t try to dwell too much on that final play,” Jaquez said. “We’ve got to move on.”