UCLA men’s basketball gears up in full strength for Maui Invitational
UCLA men’s basketball coach Mick Cronin points out in front of himself. (Ella Greenberg Winnick/Daily Bruin staff)
No. 4 Marquette
Monday, 8:30 p.m.
By Jack Nelson
Nov. 20, 2023 4:24 p.m.
The Bruins have played short-handed all season for reasons beyond their control.
Their record doesn’t show it – they haven’t taken a loss through three nonconference games.
But with a spike in competition on the horizon, they’ll be operating at full strength at last.
Making the trek to Hawaii for the first time since 2019, UCLA men’s basketball (3-0) will square off with No. 4 Marquette (3-0) on Monday night to open play at the Maui Invitational. It will then take on either No. 1 Kansas or Division II Chaminade on Tuesday before a final game Wednesday against one of No. 2 Purdue, No. 7 Tennessee, No. 11 Gonzaga or Syracuse.
Just hours after UCLA football notched a rivalry victory over USC on Saturday, the positive news in Westwood kept coming. Freshman forward Berke Buyuktuncel was cleared for play by the NCAA, giving the Bruins a complete roster for the first time this season.
“We’re just way behind, because we haven’t played with our three best NBA prospects,” said coach Mick Cronin. “We’ve got talent. We’re just young, but we all go through it.”
Buyuktuncel – the top Turkish prospect in his class – joined the team in September after attempting to join a year prior, but was forced to sit out UCLA’s three-game homestand to open the season. As an older freshman at 19 years old and carrying a 6-foot-9 frame, the power forward gives the Bruins a taller, more veteran option after experimenting with small ball in previous contests.
And his long-awaited addition is a timely one.
Marquette – UCLA’s highest-ranked regular-season opponent since then-No. 1 Gonzaga in 2021 – is buoyed by experience, returning four of its five starters from last season’s Big East champion squad. And should the Bruins run into the Jayhawks, they’ll be going against the best team in the country.
“They’ve (Marquette) got guys that have been playing together for years now, and we do respect them,” said sophomore forward/center Adem Bona. “We’ve got a gameplan, and obviously coach Cronin’s going to come up with a plan for how we’ll go about things.”
Season-to-season continuity is not a trait the Bruins share with the Golden Eagles. Three of their top five scorers are newcomers, while the other two are sophomores. One of the latter duo is guard Dylan Andrews, who has averaged 11 points, 3.5 assists and one rebound per game as the team’s third-leading scoring threat.
Andrews sat out last Wednesday’s game against Long Island as a coach’s decision, but Cronin said he will be available Monday.
Despite coming away with a 20-point win over the Sharks, the Bruins – entering as 32.5-point favorites – committed 14 turnovers and 18 fouls, both season highs. For freshman guard Jan Vide, those struggles are part of the learning curve he’s undergone since leaving Europe’s style of play behind.
“I’m still trying to get used to American basketball. It’s much more physical – defense is stronger and everything,” Vide said. “I need to relax a bit more and try to take care of the ball, like coach says.”
With his defense-heavy coaching philosophy, the focus for UCLA’s fifth-year bench boss at the Maui Invitational is just that – toughening up on the defensive side of the ball at one of college basketball’s most prestigious tournaments.
“We’ve got to grow. We’ve got to learn to play harder and longer. You cannot turn the ball over and beat real teams,” Cronin said. “Once we learn to not turn it over, we can win with our defense, and there’s different ways to win – you don’t always have to have the best players.”