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UCLA men’s basketball and USC, both with losing records, to battle in rivalry game

Then-freshman forward/center Adem Bona fights for a rebound under the basket during one of last year’s rivalry games. Bona’s foul troubles have jeopardized his recent playing time. (Daily Bruin file photo)

Men's Basketball


USC
Saturday, 5 p.m.

Galen Center
ESPN2

By Lauryn Olina Wang

Jan. 25, 2024 11:33 p.m.

The Trojans debuted this season as the No. 21 team in the nation.

The Bruins entered unranked.

After four games, USC slipped to No. 23 courtesy of a 70-60 loss to UC Irvine.

Meanwhile, UCLA still hadn’t managed to crack into the rankings despite a 4-0 start.

Coach Mick Cronin was candid about that reality in the press conference following his team’s win against Chaminade in the Maui Invitational on Nov. 21.

“I take it as an insult that people thought we shouldn’t be ranked with the recruiting class we have,” Cronin said.

But since then, both programs have fallen out of the national conversation in swift fashion.

UCLA men’s basketball (8-11, 3-5 Pac-12) will challenge USC (8-11, 2-6) at the Galen Center on Saturday night, in what is shaping up to be a bout between two struggling programs searching for some semblance of winning strategy before the ship sails on a March Madness berth.

The Bruins have not emerged victorious on the Trojans’ home court in the Cronin era.

“You’re going to have to win a game – a rivalry game – like this on the road,” Cronin said. “But the next few days, imparting to our young guys what they’re going to face from an intensity standpoint in a game like this. … A game’s important to your fanbase, better be important to you as a coach.”

USC enters Saturday on a four-game skid with a roster stretched thin because of injury. Veteran guard Boogie Ellis – the Trojans’ top returning scorer, who averages 18.7 points per game with a .455 3-point shooting clip – suffered a hamstring injury that is limiting his availability. He last played 34 minutes against Washington State on Jan. 10 and has not seen the court since.

Guard Isaiah Collier – the top-ranked recruit in the class of 2023 – suffered a hand injury against the Cougars as well and has also been out since then. The starter averages 15.4 points per game and is expected to be out for another two to four weeks.

“Obviously their injuries are well-documented,” Cronin said. “I would fully expect Boogie Ellis will play. He’s had ample time to recover, I think, at this point. He’s been a Bruin killer. Basket gets real big when he sees the four letters playing against him.”

On Saturday, Cronin’s squad will have the chance to avoid shades of deja vu from last season, when Ellis scored a floor-high 31 points – 27 in the second half alone – to surge past UCLA.

And despite Cronin’s promotion of his recruiting class early in the season, his young squad is struggling offensively. While UCLA boasts the best scoring defense in the conference, it rounds out the 12 teams in scoring offense while bringing up the rear in field goal percentage.

(Neha Krishnakumar/Daily Bruin staff)
Junior guard Lazar Stefanovic steps on the 3-point line while moving behind it. Stefanovic has shot 47.1% from beyond the arc in UCLA men’s basketball’s last three games.(Neha Krishnakumar/Daily Bruin staff)

The Bruins’ most efficient scorer, sophomore forward/center Adem Bona, has endured fluctuating minutes as he attempts to stay out of foul trouble.

“All the teams are trying to get me in foul trouble, kind of like a game plan, and we kind of saw it against the Arizona game,” Bona said. “It’s going to be playing smarter, paying attention to detail and just being more careful.”

Bona added that he is continuing to make strides on the offensive end as he embraces his more important role as the lone returning starter from last year.

“Going from my role from last year to the role this year, it’s completely different. I’ve had to adapt and also develop,” Bona said. “We’ve put a lot of hours in. Passing the ball at the right time, shooting at the right time, … development never stops.”

Alongside Bona, two other freshmen, guard Sebastian Mack and forward Berke Buyuktuncel, have slotted into starting positions. Junior guard Lazar Stefanovic, a transfer from Utah and the sole upperclassman starter, said he is becoming more confident in his shooting form.

Stefanovic is averaging 34.7 minutes for the Bruins and spoke of his learning process throughout this season ahead of the rivalry game.

“I do think I’ve been playing good for a while, but now the shots are falling down,” Stefanovic said. “When you’re more confident, you’ll try to do more stuff, and you’ll get better, and you find out more things about yourself – especially when you play in environments like we have to play in.”

Bona added that the unique stakes of a rivalry game represent bright spots in the conference slate.

“Playing them at ‘SC, it’s also an amazing game for us because it’s a tough crowd, but I really enjoyed every single bit of it,” Bona said. “I feed off energy. … I look forward to games like that.”

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Lauryn Olina Wang | Sports senior staff
Wang is currently a Sports senior staff writer on the women’s basketball, men’s basketball, NIL and football beats. She was previously an assistant Sports editor on the women’s basketball, men’s soccer, men’s golf and track and field beats, reporter on the women’s basketball beat and contributor on the men’s and women’s golf beats. Wang is also a fourth-year history major and community engagement and social change minor.
Wang is currently a Sports senior staff writer on the women’s basketball, men’s basketball, NIL and football beats. She was previously an assistant Sports editor on the women’s basketball, men’s soccer, men’s golf and track and field beats, reporter on the women’s basketball beat and contributor on the men’s and women’s golf beats. Wang is also a fourth-year history major and community engagement and social change minor.
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