UCLA men’s basketball seeks to rebound from recent losses in Washington road trip
Freshman guard Jaylen Clark and UCLA men’s basketball have cooled off after starting conference play 8-0, going 1-2 in the last three outings. (David Rimer/Daily Bruin staff)
Thursday, 8 p.m.
Saturday, 4:30 p.m.
By Sam Connon
Feb. 11, 2021 11:31 a.m.
When the Cougars and Huskies made the trip down to Pauley Pavilion in January, the Bruins were unblemished in conference play and sitting alone at the top of the standings.
UCLA men’s basketball (13-4, 9-2 Pac-12) has now dropped two of its last three games and will visit Washington State (11-8, 4-8) on Thursday and Washington (3-14, 2-10) on Saturday with a lot more company in the battle for first place. The Cougars and Huskies aren’t exactly part of that group, with the former entering the weekend in 10th place and the latter sitting in 11th, but both teams experienced some semblance of success the last time they played the Bruins.
Washington State lost to UCLA by 30 points on Jan. 14, so its success was limited to individual achievements. Guard Isaac Bonton scored 23 points on 10-of-17 shooting from the field and 3-of-5 from 3, and that was after only scoring four points in the opening 16 minutes.
Freshman guard Jaylen Clark said he’s willing to defend Bonton on Thursday if the coaching staff tells him to, but he doesn’t expect the Cougar guard to start off slow like he did in January.
“I expect (Bonton) to really go,” Clark said. “Last time, I felt like he didn’t come at us until later in the game – he started saying ‘I got to go’ – so I expect him to be ready to go off for it this time.”
Bonton ranks second in the Pac-12 with 18.1 points per game. Coach Mick Cronin raved about Bonton’s acrobatic shot-making abilities after Tuesday’s practice, jokingly disclosing one of the few ways he knows how to stop him from scoring.
“Bonton’s a problem if he shows up at game time,” Cronin said. “Hide his shoes in the locker room, hope he’s only got one pair there.”
Bonton wasn’t the only guard who put up big numbers against the Bruins’ defense in January. Husky guard Quade Green scored 25 points on 10-of-16 shooting when Washington gave UCLA an upset scare Jan. 16.
The Bruins won that game by five points, but the Huskies’ guards accounted for 51 of their team’s 76 points that afternoon. Cronin said high-octane guard play is one of the inherent truths in the Pac-12 and his team will have to overcome it yet again this weekend.
“I think that’s a staple of the Pac-12 – there’s always been great guard play in this league and I don’t think that will change,” Cronin said. “Guys like (Green) and Bonton, you can’t give them easy baskets because they’re going to score, so you’ve got to make them take the hard ones and really work to earn it and hopefully it wears them down.”
The Bruins are 4-4 in games outside of Pauley Pavilion, and this trip to the Pacific Northwest will be their second-to-last time playing a set of true away games this season.
For Clark, this will be his first trip to the Washington schools. Clark was shocked to hear it had been snowing earlier this week in Pullman, and he admitted he had no idea where the college town even was.
“I heard there’s nothing out there,” Clark said. “Like their Walmart is in Idaho, (and) I heard it’s really empty and small.”
Clark and the Bruins will start their weekend in snowy Pullman on Thursday at 8 p.m., followed by a matchup with the Huskies on Saturday at 4:30 p.m.
Familiar foe to friendly face
Bruin fans may remember Joakim Noah as the center for Florida who sank UCLA in back-to-back Final Fours over a decade ago.
Noah averaged 12 points, 10 rebounds and five blocks per game in his two March Madness matchups against the Bruins, and he actually exchanged courtside jabs with members of the UCLA Spirit Squad in 2006.
Freshman forward Mac Etienne may not be the second coming of Noah, but the newly-minted Bruin said he’s drawn comparisons to the former Gator in the past.
“A lot of people compare us because of the looks,” Etienne said.
Both big men are also from New York, weigh roughly 230 pounds and sport similarly iconic hairstyles.
Etienne is a long way from being a Final Four hero, considering he just made his collegiate debut against USC five days ago. Still, Etienne played 27 minutes, scored eight points, hauled in five boards and blocked two shots Saturday after joining the team a month earlier, and he said he’ll only get better the more time he spends with his teammates.
“I’m just really liking this, really (being) surrounded by great players,” Etienne said. “It’s helped me elevate my own game, it’s helping me elevate my teammates’ game. The college game’s a lot faster, but it’s just something that you just have to get used to.”
Etienne figures to feature heavily in the rotation again versus Washington State and Washington, with the statuses of redshirt junior big men Jalen Hill and Cody Riley still up in the air. Cronin said Tuesday that Riley was still day-to-day with an ankle injury and he did not have a timeline for Hill’s return from the personal issues that have already caused him to miss one game.