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Mid-season rebound for UCLA men’s basketball mirrors 2019-2020 campaign

Freshman guard/forward Brandon Williams (left), coach Mick Cronin (middle) and sophomore guard Dylan Andrews (right) meet on the sideline during a game. (Brandon Morquecho/Assistant Photo editor)

By Lauryn Olina Wang

Feb. 13, 2024 2:03 p.m.

This post was updated Feb. 13 at 9:16 p.m.

Coach Mick Cronin embarked on his first season with UCLA over four years ago.

Cronin commenced the 2019-2020 campaign with four regular season home wins, after which his young team went 1-2 at the Maui Invitational.

By mid-February, the Bruins had recovered from a 1-3 conference start and sat at 8-5 in the Pac-12.

If this resume rings a bell, it’s no surprise.

UCLA men’s basketball has accomplished a strikingly similar trajectory in its 2023-2024 campaign. This year’s Bruins ignited a 3-0 start before taking then-No. 4 and then-No. 11 Marquette and Gonzaga down to the wire in Maui but dropping both decisions. Now, one of the youngest high-major teams in the country is 13-11 overall and again 8-5 in Pac-12 play through the second week of February – bouncing back from a 1-4 conference start with seven wins in its last eight games.

That 2019-2020 team eventually won out in its conference slate, with the exception of an away loss at USC. Then, before having a real opportunity as a No. 2 seed at the tournament title and according automatic March Madness bid, the Pac-12 tournament was canceled. The nation began to enter lockdown.

But this time – barring another pandemic – the motley crew from Westwood will have the opportunity to see the dividends of resurgence and redemption pay off.

“It’s all about being the underdog and having that grit coming into every game,” said freshman guard Sebastian Mack after a game against Stanford. “A lot of people have been counting us out.”

If the Bruins replicate their skyrocketing stock in the second half of the conference schedule, they will receive a first-round bye in the Pac-12 tournament as a top-four team in the standings. Considering the strength of their schedule – and the fact that only three Pac-12 teams are currently expected to qualify for the NCAA Tournament, per Joe Lunardi’s bracketology – a run for the tournament title may represent the Hail Mary for a bid to dance in the postseason.

“You can’t just snap your fingers and throw a team together,” Cronin said, following a game against California. “You’ve got to stay together through the fire. … That’s what changed our fate.”

UCLA is tied with Oregon for third in the Pac-12 standings – two games behind first-place and nationally-ranked No. 5 Arizona and a single game behind Washington State, which is projected to be a First Four team in the tournament.

The Bruins are readying for a three-game homestand against Colorado, Utah and USC across the next two weeks before taking on the Washington schools away, then closing out the regular season in Pauley Pavilion against Arizona and Arizona State.

One month after UCLA lost to Cal for the first time in seven years – when Cronin refused to talk to the media post-game – the Bruins escaped with a one-point win against the Golden Bears at Haas Pavilion. Cal is trained in late-game scenarios, with 18 total games decided by single digits – the most in Division I. But UCLA refused to crumble down the stretch last weekend when it otherwise may have in prior games.

“It’s a tough game where we could’ve folded,” said sophomore forward/center Adem Bona. “Earlier in the season, we would’ve been having a different conversation right now. You can see the growth in the team to stay tough, to fight hard even when the shots are not going in.”

Bona is the only starting holdover from last season and has assumed a leadership role for the Bruins despite being an underclassman. Cronin has been proactive in positioning the potential 2024 NBA Draft pick as the centerpiece of UCLA’s offense.

The 6-foot-10 stalwart’s ability to draw defenders and facilitate ball movement has posed a salient threat to opposing defenses throughout the season. But Bona has eclipsed at least four fouls in 13 games this season, and early foul trouble has proven his Achilles heel.

“Adem is one of the best big men in college basketball – he’s a great athlete with an unbelievable attitude. He’s just a great person,” Cronin said after the team’s win at Stanford. “Everybody’s strength is their weakness, always. His aggression is his strength; at times it’s his weakness in foul trouble.”

And yet, the Bruins are starting to succeed even when Bona is forced to sit.

UCLA was 1-4 on the season when Bona attempted five or fewer shots, but in the home win against Oregon, he logged 19 minutes and four points on 2-of-3 shooting. The Bruins still managed to secure the victory down the stretch behind a late-game surge from sophomore guard Dylan Andrews.

The Bruins’ reserve bigs also keep the squad buoyed. When Cronin sent Bona to the bench in the game against Cal, redshirt fifth-year forward/center Kenneth Nwuba and freshman center Aday Mara left a defensive imprint in Bona’s absence.

Time will tell how this season ultimately shapes up, but for now, Bona distilled the Bruins’ motivation as the UCLA pedigree.

“We’re hungry coming into every game. We want to get a win,” Bona said. “It’s not just because we feel invincible, but because we’re UCLA.”

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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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