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Unanswered questions: The final stretch of Pac-12 UCLA basketball

Images of UCLA men’s and women’s basketball players fill the silhouettes of coaches Cori Close (left) and Mick Cronin (right). (Helen Quach/Design director)

By Joseph Crosby, Jack Nelson, and Grace Whitaker

March 6, 2024 12:01 p.m.

Question marks have surrounded both UCLA men’s basketball and No. 7 UCLA women’s basketball since before either of their seasons started. As the former enters the last two games of its regular season and the latter prepares for a conference tournament featuring five other ranked teams, some of those questions still linger. Sports editor Joseph Crosby and senior staff writers Jack Nelson and Grace Whitaker attempt to answer some of them before both Bruin teams get back on the court.

Will UCLA men’s basketball defeat Arizona?
Jack Nelson, Daily Bruin senior staff

This ship has already sailed, and it won’t reappear on the horizon.

UCLA inexplicably led then-No. 12 Arizona by 19 points at the McKale Center when the two met earlier this season. Entering the contest as one of the worst 3-point shooting teams in the country, the Bruins were suddenly in remarkable form, hitting six of nine from deep in the first half.

But a combination of unforgiving officials – giving the Wildcats 23 free throws in the second frame – and missed opportunities for the Bruins down the stretch spurred a magnificent collapse. Chucking up five 3s and missing all of them as the final 40 seconds ticked away, the UCLA of the early season shone through in the defining moments.

Bearing enough talent to gain large leads, the Bruins have been haunted by a lack of experience needed to finish – their fatal flaw. They’ll be welcoming the now-No. 5 Wildcats having lost their last four in a row, squandering all momentum they gained with a midseason six-game win streak.

Pride is what’s really on the line for the final Pac-12 iteration of this rivalry. Arizona is a lock for a top-two seed in the conference tournament, and UCLA is crashing and burning at the close.

The Bruins controlled most of the previous meeting, but it’ll be impossible to replicate the lead they built last time. And there’s a reason they possess zero quality wins as February turns to March.

If it couldn’t win in a blowout, the conference’s most inconsistent team has no hope for redemption.

Will Cori Close finally get a championship?
Grace Whitaker, Daily Bruin senior staff

Coach Cori Close has never collected a championship win in her nine-year tenure at UCLA.

UCLA’s closest result came last season when a Cinderella run spurred the 5th-seeded Bruins to the championship game. And yet, while so close to the trophy-hoisting and net-chopping result, it slipped through their fingers.

Since then, Close has dived in headfirst to create a championship-level team.

She’s dedicated her efforts to the idea that in order to create a desired result, one must master a perfect recipe for success.

The coach has curated a resume that includes the No. 1 recruiting class of 2022, the highly coveted transfer of former No. 1 recruit Lauren Betts and fifth-year return of UCLA standout Charisma Osborne.

Empirically, this season is UCLA’s best shot yet at a championship run – whether it be in the conference or nationally. Osborne headlines a star-studded group that includes the widely recognized sophomore class that now has one year of playoff experience under its belt.

But it’s not the first year Close has had stars. The difference this year lies in the culture and environment, one that leads to the cohesive playmaking that the Bruins have presented all season.

With talent all over the league and wise coaches scattered among a slew of top programs, sometimes championships just come down to who wants it the most.

From what it has presented so far, UCLA wants it – but now it’s time to prove it has earned it.

Does the men’s team have a path to the NCAA Tournament?
Joseph Crosby, Sports editor

The answer is much different than it was as recent as three weeks ago.

Before facing Utah at home Feb. 18, UCLA had won eight of its last nine games and put up a strong fight at the McKale Center in its loss to then-No. 12 Arizona, at one point leading by 19.

Things were trending up for a team that had climbed from 6-10 overall and 1-4 in conference play to 14-11 and 9-5, respectively. The path to March that had seemingly been closed off had reopened, exposing a narrow route for the Bruins that could lead them to the big dance.

UCLA would still need to win out and put up a decent fight at the Pac-12 tournament, at least reaching the semifinals there. But a difficult path is better than none at all.

Now, however, the Bruins are in the same boat as they were after falling to the Utes by 46.

Dropping four consecutive games to Utah, USC, Washington and No. 18 Washington State, UCLA is now firmly back in the position of needing to win the Pac-12 tournament outright to continue its streak of March Madness appearances.

That fallback option – if it can be called that – has certainly existed throughout the year, but with the likes of Arizona and Washington State as the two favorites to win the conference tournament, it’s always been a daunting prospect.

In all, the Bruins chances are slim to none. With the way they’ve played in their last four games, they’ll be lucky to make it out of the first round of the Pac-12 tournament.

Maybe the miracles of March can make an early appearance and propel UCLA to the semifinals or finals, but in a situation where they’ll likely need to win four games in as many days, the odds are near zero.

And come Selection Sunday, only Close’s team will be going dancing.

How will Lauren Betts play in her first Pac-12 tournament as a starter?
Grace Whitaker, Daily Bruin senior staff

Betts’ transfer from Stanford to UCLA was the biggest transfer of the 2023 offseason. And her debut in Pauley Pavilion was one of the most anticipated parts of the Bruins’ season opener.

The audience bore witness to a 20-point performance as the center proved the hype surrounding her name was not in vain. Betts then presented double-digit scoring clips in 14 of the next 15 games.

But Betts’ season henceforth has been a tumultuous rollercoaster.

Because of an unknown injury, Betts missed four games during the middle of UCLA’s conference slate. The Bruins went 2-2 without her, dropping two contests to Washington State and Stanford, with Washington State marking UCLA’s first loss to an unranked opponent this season.

With that in mind, it’s evident that Betts is nearly essential to UCLA’s success on the court. But the Pac-12 Tournament will serve as the first true test of the center, as she only posted 18 minutes total across two games for Stanford last year.

If Betts’ double-double against No. 13 Colorado or her 24 points against No. 11 Oregon State are any indication, the sophomore can handle pressure. And heading into the tournament, the Bruins won’t need her to consistently put up 20-point marks. They’ll just need her height and strength in the paint to open up the floor, which Betts is more than capable of doing.

As for if or when she goes head to head with Cardinal center Cameron Brink, only time will tell.

How was Mick Cronin’s coaching effort this season?
Jack Nelson, Daily Bruin senior staff

A third Pac-12 Coach of the Year award was in the cards for UCLA’s fifth-year bench boss, and rather suddenly.

Following a disastrous 6-10 start to the season, Mick Cronin looked like everything but the conference’s cream of the crop.

He was tasked with replacing four of five starters from 2023’s Sweet 16 team and banked the future on international recruits, bringing in seven freshmen from five different countries. It was a talented bunch, but talent alone doesn’t win, and early-season UCLA was a prime example.

More than ever before in Westwood, Cronin – notoriously unafraid to speak his mind – risked losing the locker room, publicly denouncing his players’ aptitude and hesitating to take responsibility.

But all was forgiven when somehow, some way, the Bruins executed a complete 180.

A young bunch, long unable to close out tight contests, began to show that it had learned from its mistakes. Sophomore guard Dylan Andrews started living up to preseason expectations, sophomore forward/center Adem Bona shed foul trouble and freshmen found their offensive footing.

That world of change produced eight wins in nine games as a team once relegated to the conference cellar rose to the upper echelon. All it took, though, was four consecutive losses to prove the Bruins were never really any more than the underwhelming sum of their parts.

Cronin did admirably in attempting to squeeze more out of his players.

His coaching effort, though respectable, will be forgotten when the Bruins aren’t called on Selection Sunday.

Who will be the sophomore standout?
Grace Whitaker, Daily Bruin senior staff

Last year, it was Kiki Rice.

When UCLA faced a formidable opponent and uphill battle in the Pac-12 tournament semifinal game against then-No. 1 seed Stanford, it was Rice – a freshman at the time – who electrified the Bruins.

The guard notched 22 points, five rebounds and five assists. And in the final four minutes when the contest was down to the wire, it was Rice who drew four fouls and claimed seven succeeding free throws that proved the difference against the much taller and more experienced Cardinal.

But this year, the difference maker will not be Rice. It will be Londynn Jones.

Jones quickly separated herself last season as next in line to be UCLA’s true sharpshooter, with the guard clinching 87 3-pointers across the nonconference and regular season slate. But once playoffs rolled around, the freshman struggled.

This year, Jones will be ready.

In one of the Bruins’ most recent games against Utah, Jones exploded for 30 points off of seven 3-pointers. With seven ranked opponents in the Pac-12 tournament and a likelihood that UCLA makes it to the championship, it will be facing three back-to-back ranked contests.

The Bruins will need Jones to electrify their offense. Considering the fact that a slew of these teams boast centers who can crash on Betts – preventing that scoring option – UCLA will need Jones’ threat from deep to pull off a win.

Don’t be surprised if a game-changing moment results from Jones’ hands.

Which of UCLA men’s basketball’s newcomers has been the best?
Joseph Crosby, Sports editor

Two of Cronin’s newest additions have stood above the rest.

Both regularly in the starting lineup, guards freshman Sebastian Mack and junior Lazar Stefanovic have made immediate impacts in Westwood.

And while Mack is likely to be the answer to this question in years to come, the rookie hasn’t yet outshined Stefanovic’s consistency on both ends of the floor.

With just 1.4 points per game separating them, Mack and Stefanovic have both been reliable offensive options. Stefanovic gets the edge from deep with his .354 3-point clip, a mark 63 points higher than his freshman counterpart. Mack, on the other hand, has shown a great ability – and tendency – to drive to the basket, making him a better inside option.

Stefanovic has the clear advantage on the glass.

Leading not just the guards but his entire team in rebounds per game, Stefanovic averages 6.2 boards per contest, often taking advantage of other team’s prioritization of boxing out Bona to snag the ball himself.

Defensively, it’s a similar story. Stefanovic’s experience in the Pac-12 heading into this season and overall play since donning a Bruin uniform have made him a more valuable defender than Mack. He’s also been on the floor more, averaging 34.9 minutes per game to Mack’s 27.3.

Mack is certainly the future of the program with much more room to grow than Stefanovic, but as it stands, the Utah transfer has been the best addition to UCLA’s team in 2023-2024.

 

Will UCLA women’s basketball keep its No. 1 seed in March Madness?
Grace Whitaker, Daily Bruin senior staff

Heading into the season, UCLA was boasting a No. 2 seed nationally – its highest in program history – and a No. 1 seed in the way-too-early bracketology for March Madness.

Since that date, losses have come, and while the Bruins have never fallen out of the top 25, they have moved up and down the rankings and are now settled comfortably within the top 10. As of March 3, NCAA Women’s Bracketology has UCLA slated with a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

But just as uncertain as conference season is, conference tournaments are equally unlikely.

Take last year’s Pac-12 tournament for the most glaring example. The championship game was played between the No. 5 and No. 7 seed, with seventh-seeded Washington State winning it all. This uncertainty means UCLA’s national No. 1 seed is not set in stone by any means, and a conference championship berth is nearly required in order to secure it.

The Pac-12 tournament is arguably this season’s hardest conference tournament. With six teams ranked in the top 25, UCLA could face three back-to-back contests against ranked opponents. This serves as the perfect opportunity for voters to see if the Bruins are worthy of a first-ranked seed.

Win these games, the No. 1 seed is not just on the horizon but is inevitable. Lose along the way, the Bruins potentially lose that top mark – and they could find themselves in a side of the bracket they don’t want to be on, where they could once again meet their fate against coach Dawn Staley’s South Carolina.

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Joseph Crosby
Crosby was 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.
Crosby was 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.
Jack Nelson | Sports senior staff
Nelson is currently a Sports senior staff writer. He was previously an assistant Sports editor on the softball, men's tennis and women's tennis beats and a contributor on the men's tennis and women's tennis beats.
Nelson is currently a Sports senior staff writer. He was previously an assistant Sports editor on the softball, men's tennis and women's tennis beats and a contributor on the men's tennis and women's tennis beats.
Grace Whitaker | Sports senior staff
Whitaker is currently a senior staff writer on the football, men's basketball and women's basketball beats. She was previously an assistant Sports editor on the women's basketball, women's soccer, beach volleyball and cross country beats and a contributor on the women's basketball and beach volleyball beats.
Whitaker is currently a senior staff writer on the football, men's basketball and women's basketball beats. She was previously an assistant Sports editor on the women's basketball, women's soccer, beach volleyball and cross country beats and a contributor on the women's basketball and beach volleyball beats.
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