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Joseph’s Diagnosis: UCLA men’s basketball’s 46-point loss to Utah marks worst in program history

Coach Mick Cronin stands around his players and assistant coaches. UCLA men’s basketball’s loss to Utah on Thursday was the second-largest margin of defeat in program history. (Nicolas Greamo/Daily Bruin senior staff)

By Joseph Crosby

Jan. 12, 2024 10:40 a.m.

It’s not uncommon for one team to double the other’s score in the game’s opening minutes.

However, that mathematical quirk seldom rings true at the sound of the final buzzer.

Yet Thursday night at the Jon M. Huntsman Center, the Bruins fell victim to that very phenomenon – and then some.

A catastrophe befell UCLA men’s basketball in its 90-44 loss to Utah in Salt Lake City. The second-biggest defeat in program history was etched into historical records – just two points shy of the 48-point “Maples Massacre” loss to Stanford in 1997. But don’t let that fact fool you – Thursday’s loss was the worst in school history.

“We got our ass kicked every way we could – coaching, playing, hustle, everything,” coach Mick Cronin told reporters after the game.

Cronin’s right – and then some.

The designation of “worst loss ever” is a hefty claim for a team that has been playing collegiate basketball since 1919. But the Bruins’ defeat against the Utes was just the third time the 11-time national champions had ever suffered a 40-point loss. UCLA’s defense may have been nonexistent in the 109-61 loss to Stanford, but it still eclipsed 60 points.

Eight years before that, it reached 64 in a 38-point loss to Arizona – a defeat that garnered the infamous distinction of “biggest-ever defeat” at the time.

But 44 points was all the Bruins could muster Thursday night. It was their worst offensive showing since, ironically, a 39-point outing almost exactly nine years prior at the very same arena. They made just three 3-pointers on 17 attempts, shot 31.5% from the field and were outrebounded by 22.

The Bruin offense failed – as it has done time and again in this stretch of eight losses in nine affairs.

But Thursday also bore witness to one of the worst defensive collapses of the Cronin era.

Entering this week’s slate of games, UCLA possessed the Pac-12’s best defense by points allowed per game and opponent field goal percentage. Against Utah, UCLA allowed the most points it had all season – the Utes’ 50% clip from the field exceeded any of the Bruins’ previous opponents.

In the lead up to this portion of the schedule, redshirt fifth-year forward/center Kenneth Nwuba said the offense would come, so long as UCLA maintained its defensive standards.

Yet good defense disappeared and instead ushered in the worst offensive performance of the campaign.

So, what makes this loss worse than the game against the Cardinal 27 years ago?

Context.

The 1996-1997 team was fresh off a national championship two years prior. It was led by the forward trio of Charles O’Bannon, Toby Bailey and J.R. Henderson – now J.R. Sakuragi – who each earned All-Conference honors the year prior. O’Bannon and Bailey ultimately repeated the recognition alongside center Jelani McCoy. UCLA entered the game against Stanford with a 7-3 record, not 6-9.

The 2023-2024 Bruins don’t carry the same pedigree as that team did. They didn’t return their five double-digit scorers. The 1997 team featured the talent for a deep NCAA Tournament run – which it would eventually go on – while the 2024 team will need a miracle just for a March Madness berth.

If the 48-point Stanford loss was a wake-up call that spurred a 17-4 run to finish the season, then the 46-point Utah loss is turning off the alarm after pressing snooze three times.

The rest of the season’s results aren’t likely to get better.

The bottom-of-the-barrel Bruins won’t be climbing to the same peaks they reached last year as two matchups against No. 8 Arizona and at least one more game against every other Pac-12 team remain.

It’s not anyone’s fault. Cronin could certainly change the way he talks about his team in press conferences, but he can’t magically turn a group of largely 18- and 19-year-olds into elite college basketball players overnight.

The road ahead will be long – and one that almost certainly ends in the early rounds of the Pac-12 tournament.

But eyes shouldn’t be on 2024. It’s time for UCLA to cast its gaze forward to 2025 – and discern how it can keep its “blue” in blue blood.

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Joseph Crosby | Sports editor
Crosby is the 2023-2024 Sports editor on the football, men's basketball and NIL beats. He was previously an assistant Sports editor on the baseball, women's golf, men's water polo and women's water polo beats and a contributor on the baseball and women's golf beats. He is also a fourth-year statistics student.
Crosby is the 2023-2024 Sports editor on the football, men's basketball and NIL beats. He was previously an assistant Sports editor on the baseball, women's golf, men's water polo and women's water polo beats and a contributor on the baseball and women's golf beats. He is also a fourth-year statistics student.
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