Men’s basketball gears up to face Trojans with possible Pac-12 title on the line
UCLA men’s basketball went 3-of-19 from deep last time against USC, including an 0-of-2 effort from sophomore guard/forward Jaime Jaquez Jr. The Bruins and Trojans will each finish off their regular seasons in Saturday’s matchup. (Andy Bao/Daily Bruin staff)
Saturday, 1 p.m.
By Sam Connon
March 5, 2021 10:28 a.m.
In order to win the conference, the Bruins will need to topple the Trojans.
But for the first time all season, they don’t control their own destiny.
UCLA men’s basketball (17-7, 13-5 Pac-12) will host USC (20-6, 14-5) in its regular-season finale Saturday afternoon, sitting half a game back of its crosstown rival and Oregon in the race for the conference title. The Bruins started Pac-12 play 8-0 but are .500 since, allowing the Trojans and Ducks to leapfrog them heading into the final weekend.
That 5-5 stretch over the past six weeks was capped off by two turnover-ridden second-half collapses on the road – Feb. 27 against Colorado and March 3 against Oregon. Coach Mick Cronin said those two games are in the past and that he doesn’t see them as performances UCLA needs to make up for down the stretch.
“I think you’ve just got to keep trying to get better,” Cronin said. “I’m trying to build a program.”
The first step toward taking back first place is simple for the Bruins – win on Saturday – but even a victory wouldn’t clinch them the regular-season championship or top seed in next week’s conference tournament. For that to happen, UCLA will need Oregon to lose to Oregon State on Sunday night as well – something that already happened back on Jan. 23.
If the Bruins had beaten the Ducks on Wednesday, a win against the Trojans would have been enough to secure the Pac-12 crown. Instead, UCLA turned the ball over 12 times in the second half and coughed up a nine-point lead en route to an eight-point loss.
Junior guard Jules Bernard, who led the Bruins with 23 points Wednesday, offered a simple equation for wins moving forward.
“When we don’t turn the ball over, we can put enough points on to win the game,” Bernard said. “When we don’t turn the ball over and get shots up, there’s a high percentage that we score a lot of points.”
UCLA actually won the turnover battle in its 66-48 loss to USC on Feb. 6, the performance that sent the Bruins tumbling out of the AP poll and complicated their path to the Pac-12 tournament No. 1 seed. Redshirt junior forward Cody Riley missed that game with an ankle injury, so his return could help turn the tables after UCLA was a season-worst minus-seven on the boards that night.
The Bruins also shot 33.9% from the field, 15.8% from deep and 37.5% from the line, all of which were their worst or second-worst clips of the season.
USC dipped into a 4-3 stretch of its own after that game, but a 79-42 win over Stanford on Wednesday only solidified the Trojans as a No. 6 seed in ESPN’s latest bracketology predictions.
“At winning time against high-level teams, the tougher team’s going to win,” Cronin said. “Whoever’s tough enough to get the good shot, to take care of the ball, to settle down and get a defensive stop, that’s who’s going to win the game and we’re just not there.”
The 2020 Pac-12 champion was decided on the last day of the campaign as well, with USC beating UCLA in buzzer-beater fashion in the Galen Center to rob the Bruins of a share of the regular season title. As a result, UCLA hasn’t won a regular-season conference championship since 2013.
Saturday’s game at Pauley Pavilion will help decide the fate of the regular-season conference champion, but it won’t mark the end of the Bruins’ season. UCLA has already clinched a bye in the Pac-12 tournament and is currently slotted as a No. 9 seed by ESPN and a No. 10 seed by CBS ahead of March Madness.
While snapping a three-game losing streak to the Trojans is a priority for the Bruins, sophomore guard/forward Jaime Jaquez Jr. said he believes UCLA has a lot more left in the tank.
“I’m extremely confident in our team,” Jaquez said. “We made it this far in the season, we still believe in each other no matter what happens – whether we lose or whether we win. We’re a really tight group and I have the utmost confidence that we will bounce back from this.”