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Effort, offense remain focuses for men’s basketball ahead of Utah, Washington

UCLA men’s basketball players and coaches huddle on the floor of Pauley Pavilion. (Myka Fromm/Assistant Photo editor)

Men's basketball


Utah
Thursday, 6 p.m.

Jon M. Huntsman Center
ESPN2
Washington
Sunday, 4 p.m.

Pauley Pavilion
Pac-12 Networks

By Gavin Carlson

Jan. 11, 2024 12:02 p.m.

When the buzzer sounded inside Pauley Pavilion on Saturday night, coach Mick Cronin was already set to draw heavy criticism.

His team had just completed its first 0-2 homestand against Stanford and California since the 2004-2005 season.

But negative opinions toward Cronin only grew when he didn’t speak to the media following what was the Bruins’ third consecutive defeat.

On Tuesday, the coach said his absence was in order to continue speaking to his players rather than the press after the loss.

“It’s rare. … They need me right now,” Cronin said. “And I apologize (to the media), … but at that time they needed to see that I wasn’t concerned about anything else but the situation.”

Cronin and UCLA men’s basketball (6-9, 1-3 Pac-12) will have the chance to turn things around when they travel to Salt Lake City to take on Utah (11-4, 2-2) on Thursday before returning home to host Washington (9-6, 1-3) on Sunday. The pair of contests comes after the Bruins’ first loss to the Golden Bears in eight years and the worst four-game start to conference play since 2019-2020 – Cronin’s first year with the program.

“We haven’t lost a game by double figures all year, but I thought the other night was the first time that we got out-hustled, which is not acceptable,” Cronin said. “I take my job personally. It’s not healthy for me, … but that, I really take personally.”

In addition to overall effort, the Bruins’ offensive performance has become a serious issue for Cronin’s team.

UCLA is on a three-game streak of scoring fewer than 60 points and ranks dead last in the Pac-12 in points per game, field goal percentage and 3-point shooting percentage.

Ten of the conference’s 12 teams average more than 70 points per game, but UCLA has only scored 70 points in one contest since Thanksgiving: a loss to Cal State Northridge.

Following the loss to Cal, assistant coach Rod Palmer said the team’s decision making is lacking when attacking opposing defenses.

“Coach (Cronin) is trying to put the ball in people’s hands to score, guys who can score, and a lot of times they just think it’s for them to score,” Palmer said. “In actuality, it’s for them to score if they can, but find the open guy if they can’t. That’s the disconnect right there.”

The Bruins average 11.4 assists per contest, good for last in the Pac-12. With former point guard Tyger Campbell as lead playmaker of the past two seasons, UCLA ranked third in the conference in assists both campaigns.

While things on offense must change to win games, the Bruins will have the opportunity to continue their strong defensive start to the season Thursday.

Cronin’s team is first in the conference in points allowed per game and opposing field goal percentage. The figures are even more impressive in Pac-12 play, as the Bruins’ 62.8 points allowed per conference contest is eight points per game fewer than the next lowest.

Redshirt fifth-year forward/center Kenneth Nwuba said UCLA will rely on its defense to jumpstart offensive improvements.

“When we go with defense and play good defense, the offense is going to come,” Nwuba said.

Both UCLA and Utah will enter Thursday’s contest on losing streaks, as the Utes dropped both games in their Arizona road trip last week. Outside of those two defeats, Utah’s only other two losses came against then-No. 6 Houston and at St. John’s – a team that was receiving AP Poll votes at the time.

The Huskies’ start to the season, meanwhile, has been even more similar to that of the Bruins.

In addition to sharing the same conference record, Washington and UCLA have both earned seven-point victories against Oregon State and tight defeats versus Oregon. The Huskies’ nonconference stretch included losses to ranked and non-Power Five teams but also featured an upset of then-No. 7 Gonzaga.

At two games below .500 in conference play, this upcoming pair of contests presents an opportunity to return to neutral. Cronin said the team must protect its identity in order to turn things around.

“It’s still my job to deliver what the fans want,” Cronin said. “But our effort, … that is the biggest problem. If you lose that, you lose your culture, and we’ve been great all year with that regardless of scoreboard.”

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Gavin Carlson | Sports staff
Carlson is currently a staff writer on the football, men's basketball and women's basketball beats. He was previously a reporter on the softball and men's golf beats.
Carlson is currently a staff writer on the football, men's basketball and women's basketball beats. He was previously a reporter on the softball and men's golf beats.
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