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‘We don’t back down’: UCLA men’s basketball looks for redemption at end of season

UCLA men’s basketball freshman guard Sebastian Mack drives toward the basket while being defended by Oregon State forward Thomas Ndong. Mack leads the Bruins in scoring with 12.8 points per game. (Shane Yu/Daily Bruin)

Men's basketball


No. 5 Arizona
Thursday, 6:30 p.m.

Pauley Pavilion
ESPN
Arizona State
Saturday, 8 p.m.

Pauley Pavilion
FS1

By Lauryn Olina Wang

March 5, 2024 4:16 p.m.

This post was updated March 5 at 10:14 p.m.

The Bruins were projected to finish in third place in the Pac-12 preseason media poll.

With two games remaining in conference play and two games behind the pair of teams tied for third, that ship has likely sailed.

UCLA men’s basketball (14-15, 9-9 Pac-12) will close out its regular-season slate with matchups against No. 5 Arizona (23-6, 14-4) and Arizona State (14-15, 8-10) at home on Thursday and Saturday, respectively. The Bruins stand in a tie for fifth in the conference, and this last week of play before the Pac-12 tournament presents an opportunity to secure a higher seed.

“We just want to show our identity, what we stand for as a team,” said sophomore forward/center Adem Bona. “We don’t back down from anything, so I think that’s one thing I do want to put out there with these last two games.”

While a victory against Arizona would represent UCLA’s first ranked and second Quad 1 victory of the season, the stakes surrounding the contest have considerably fewer implications for a March Madness bid than they did a few weeks ago. The Bruins have dropped their last four decisions, and their outlook for the Big Dance is increasingly dire, now needing to run the table at the conference tournament.

Two of UCLA’s recent losses came within single-digit margins, but the Bruins also conceded 90 points or more for the second time this season in a 94-77 loss to Washington. The Bruins boast a top-25 scoring defense in the country while standing at No. 115 in the NET rankings.

Climbing to fourth place in the Pac-12 would allow UCLA to secure a bye in the tournament, which will ease the path to the championship game – and the corresponding NCAA Tournament bid. It would be the Hail Mary for a season where the days of winning eight of nine games seem distant.

Despite the recent skid, freshman guard Sebastian Mack – the Bruins’ leader in scoring and steals who is playing through a toe injury – said his team isn’t viewing the final homestand as a culmination of the season, but as an opportunity to continue to improve and extend play.

“We still have more to be done,” Mack said. “A big key for us (is) just developing every day and working on being better … to get into those win columns a lot more. But right now the main focus is just working hard and developing.”

Bona said the defensive glass is a point of emphasis, particularly against the physicality of Arizona. Last weekend against Washington State, UCLA totaled a minus-15 deficit on the boards, which minimized its possessions.

“Rebounding is always just vital. We lost the battle at Washington State, and that hurt us a lot,” Bona said. “We have to go out there and scrap for every ball. … Against Arizona, rebounding is going to be huge for us. We’re going to be crashing the glass.”

Along with defensive aggressiveness comes the need to avoid fouling. Last weekend’s road trip featured a combined 45 fouls to their opponents’ 30, and several players experienced foul trouble. Bona fouled out of the Washington State game, and redshirt sophomore guard Will McClendon was assessed a flagrant-2 foul resulting in ejection that same night.

Coach Mick Cronin said the disappointing results can be attributed to the inability of his young bench to rise to the occasion when his starters have to sit.

“What’s the biggest problem that we’ve had? Our bench isn’t good enough,” Cronin said. “Freshmen can only handle so many minutes, and after a certain level for a player that’s young, it’s going to be diminishing returns. And our bench hasn’t been up to snuff – not for lack of effort.”

The fifth-year coach, however, reserved high praise for the outlook and perspective of the team’s seven freshmen.

“Their attitude’s been great all year with it, and there’s a push-pull with that because you don’t want them to accept defeat,” Cronin said. “You never want them to accept defeat.”

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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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