Five fixes that could help UCLA pull out of the nosedive that threatens its season
UCLA has become quite the people pleaser. Almost everywhere it’s gone the last two weeks, the Bruins have left crowds delirious.
Twice, in a display that’s mystified coach Mick Cronin, fans have rushed the court after victories over his bumbling team.
“The way we’re playing,” Cronin cracked Saturday night after his No. 12 team’s latest stumble, a 67-64 loss to No. 21 USC at the Galen Center, “I don’t know why anyone would storm the court for beating us.”
He might have a point. What did anyone prove by beating a team that can’t consistently defend or generate points from its top scorers? UCLA (17-5 overall, 9-4 Pac-12) has looked worthy of a First Four, not a Final Four, while dropping three of its last four games, including a fifth consecutive rivalry setback that left the Bruins with their longest drought in the series with the Trojans since the 1940s.
Drew Peterson had 27 points and 12 rebounds, and the Trojans held on for a 67-64 win over the Bruins despite playing without an injured Isaiah Mobley.
Some context made it even worse. USC was missing an injured Isaiah Mobley, its top player, and got zero points from Boogie Ellis, its second-leading scorer.
It only felt as though nobody showed up for the Bruins.
The complete revamp of his defense that Cronin said he was considering would be welcome but only a partial solution.
Although the Bruins may not be able to solve their limitations in height and athleticism before the next class of star freshmen arrives, there are ways to reverse some of the worrisome trends. Here are five quick fixes that could keep the Bruins from ruins:
Rest Jaime Jaquez Jr. until his ankles improve
It might be hard for Cronin to consider sitting the team’s grittiest player even if he’s significantly less than 100%, but such a move would have dual benefits.
Jaquez would have time to strengthen the bothersome ankles that have deteriorated to the point that they needed braces Saturday, and his replacements — most likely Jaylen Clark and Peyton Watson — would get additional development after playing limited minutes this season for a variety of reasons.
Jaquez was so hobbled against the Trojans that he missed two layups and wasn’t close on either of his three-point attempts. He also was limping up the court, making his struggles even harder to watch.
A week or two dedicated solely to rest and rehabilitation could lead to a spryer Jaquez in the games that matter most.
Start Myles Johnson and David Singleton
Cody Riley and Jules Bernard have been valuable veterans and major contributors on a Final Four team, but they have not been the Bruins’ best options at their respective positions for a few weeks.
A month after returning from his serious knee injury, Riley appears even more glued to the court than usual and isn’t offering much besides the occasional jumper. He has topped five rebounds in a game only twice this season.
Third-ranked UCLA had road losses to Arizona and Arizona State because of poor shooting and a lack of defensive intensity.
Johnson snagged 11 rebounds — including six on the offensive end — in 21 minutes against the Trojans and continued to display active defense leading to multiple deflections. His minutes have enjoyed a recent uptick, but he should be starting and finishing games unless Riley can round back into the form he showed before his injury.
Bernard’s epic shooting struggles show no signs of abating. He has made 18 of 56 shots (32.1%) over the last five games, including one of nine against the Trojans. A temporary move to the bench might relieve some pressure while the Bruins get an extended boost from Singleton, one of their most reliable shooters and steadying players.
Tweak the offense
UCLA has become too susceptible to defeat when its top scorers struggle as they did Saturday, when Johnny Juzang, Bernard and Jaquez combined to make seven of 36 shots (19.4%).
A lot of that is an overreliance on jump shots. The Bruins need more cutting and screening to create easier shots. They should also utilize Johnson more on pick-and-roll plays and lobs; the graduate transfer was expected to be featured more in the offense than he was at Rutgers but is averaging career lows in shot attempts (2.7) and points (4.1) per game.
When all else fails, the Bruins need to drive more and create contact that gets them to the foul line when it’s clear their jump shots aren’t falling. Tyger Campbell did an excellent job of this Saturday, getting repeatedly hacked and making 13 of 14 free throws — more than the rest of his teammates combined.
Want it more
It felt as though the Trojans were the team with the long rivalry losing streak given their intensity and willingness to block shots in bunches and fight for loose balls.
UCLA hasn’t displayed that sort of effort since a three-game stretch at home last month in which it did not allow anyone to reach 60 points and at times made getting the ball to halfcourt a chore.
Against USC, the Bruins repeatedly gave up layups and were outscored by 10 points in the paint.
No. 3 UCLA could complete a late comeback in the 76-66 loss to No. 7 Arizona, giving the Wildcats sole possession of top of Pac-12 standings.
More minutes for Clark and Watson could help given they made the late defensive plays that nearly allowed their team to complete an improbable comeback. It’s going to need to be a gradual increase in playing time given that Clark is rounding into shape after a lengthy concussion layoff and Watson is recovering from a recent leg bruise.
Give a pep talk
The Bruins love that their coach is demanding and doesn’t sugarcoat their flaws. Sometimes, however, they need a reminder that they have the talent for another deep NCAA tournament run.
Now might be that time.
Restoring his team’s confidence after its four-game losing streak late last season helped the Bruins find the swagger that carried them to the Final Four. They’re actually deeper and more experienced now. And when they play at peak level — which they reached as recently as two weeks ago — it’s the sort of display that leaves UCLA fans wanting to storm the court.
Go beyond the scoreboard
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