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‘We’re getting 1% better every day’: UCLA men’s basketball wins three of four

Coach Mick Cronin points toward the court during Saturday’s game between UCLA men’s basketball and USC. After four losses in as many years at the Galen Center, Cronin and the Bruins broke through with a 15-point win over the Trojans. (Brandon Morquecho/Assistant Photo editor)

By Joseph Crosby

Jan. 30, 2024 3:18 p.m.

This post was updated Jan. 30 at 7:37 p.m. 

The ebb and flow of the Bruins’ season has seemingly resembled college basketball’s characteristic momentum swings.

A 5-2 stretch, featuring close losses to then-No. 4 Marquette and then-No. 11 Gonzaga, bled into a run where UCLA lost eight of nine games.

But with three wins in their last four contests – the only loss coming in a game that coach Mick Cronin believes his team should have won – the Bruins’ erratic season is currently on the upswing.

“At the beginning of the year, it kind of fluctuated. It went up and down, but I think our confidence is up there,” said sophomore forward/center Adem Bona ahead of playing USC. “We had a pretty solid week at Arizona, and I think that’s going to help our confidence.”

Heading into the home stretch of conference play, UCLA men’s basketball sits just two games behind first-place No. 11 Arizona and Oregon, with a chance at revenge against the latter just days away. The Bruins’ last four outings have come courtesy of a marked offensive improvement relative to their first five bouts with Pac-12 opponents.

“We feel we should have won four in a row,” Cronin said after defeating USC. “If we were sitting at 5-4, we’d be a game out of first. We let Oregon slip away. We definitely let Arizona get away from us, although the stripes had a lot to do with that.”

The Bruins held a five-point advantage early in the second half against the Ducks a month ago, but 16 second-half points from Oregon guard Jackson Shelstad – including two free throws to ice the game – prevented UCLA from starting Pac-12 play 2-0.

Last week against Arizona featured a similar, if not more dramatic, series of events.

After the Bruins claimed a 17-point lead with just under 16 minutes to play, the Wildcats embarked on a 49-26 run to end the game, ultimately securing their six-point win. All of Arizona’s second half-points came in that stretch, and 22 were off of free throws – the impact of the “stripes” Cronin referenced.

But even with the six-point loss at the McKale Memorial Center keeping UCLA out of the above-.500 tier in conference play, the Bruins are scoring more with increased efficiency while maintaining their status as the Pac-12’s best scoring defense.

UCLA is averaging 69.3 points per game since defeating Washington, a 12.9-point increase over its average output in the first five games of conference play. In that same span, the Bruins have improved their shooting percentage by nearly 6% and bolstered their 3-point shooting by over 13%.

“I feel like we’re getting 1% better every day. Throughout the season, we’re going to have our ups and downs,” said sophomore guard Dylan Andrews after his team’s win over USC. “We just got to keep going, keep pushing and just be ready to get into the next game.”

Perhaps the biggest up of Andrews’ season came Saturday against the Trojans, when the point guard scored 20 points on 7-of-15 shooting and 3-of-6 from beyond the arc. It was his best offensive output of Pac-12 play and trailed only his 22-point night against Cal State Northridge.

The uptick in outside scoring has also coincided with another trend – fewer points and more assists from Bona.

The Bruins’ starting big has scored nine, 10 and 10 points in his last three games, following 22 against the Huskies. In those same three games, he’s tallied five, three and two assists – the most of any three-game stretch in his career, and the second and third instances in which he’s had three or more assists.

“It’s kind of a game plan for every team we’ve played recently to trap the post,” Bona said. “I’ve made it my own game plan to get assists. So I just find the open man or find the closest man to me … so we don’t get a turnover.”

Despite three wins in their last four games, an at-large NCAA Tournament berth still remains out of reach for now.

The Bruins sit at No. 136 in the NET rankings – one of the primary tools used to decide 36 at-large bids for March Madness. And after conquering USC on the road for the first time in his tenure at UCLA, Cronin himself wasn’t ready to admit his team had turned a corner.

“We’ll see. Just got to try to get better. It’s about them and their development,” Cronin said. “Guys get better individually, the team will continue to do well. That’s what I try to make it about.”

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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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