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UCLA’s basketball team still trying to master the basics this late in season

UCLA’s basketball team still trying to master the basics this late in season
UCLA's Jaylen Hands tries to keep the ball away from Stanford's Josh Sharma during the second half Saturday at Palo Alto. Stanford won 104-80. (Tony Avelar / Associated Press)

It was 90 minutes of basketball basics. UCLA players broke into two groups, focusing on fundamentals and shooting drills that more closely resembled a summer workout than a late-season practice.

By the time the session ended Monday, the Bruins might have felt as if they deserved Murry Bartow Basketball Camp T-shirts.

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With only a handful of games left in its season, UCLA is still spending much of its time on player development. There’s not much of a choice for a team that continues to struggle with turnovers, defensive rotations and free throws, even if the calendar suggests players should have a pretty good handle on those things by now.

“What we’ve tried to do as a staff is just pour everything into them individually,” Bartow, the Bruins’ interim coach, said this week. “So we have tried to work on the individual and then at the same time tried to do the best we can in terms of winning games, but we are incredibly young. We just don’t have a lot of experience on this team, we just don’t.”

UCLA ranks No. 349 out of 353 Division I teams in terms of experience, according to the metrics of Ken Pomeroy, featuring only two juniors and no seniors in its playing rotation.

The youth has resulted in jagged progress for the Bruins (13-13 overall, 6-7 Pac-12 Conference) heading into a game against Oregon State (16-8, 8-4) on Thursday night at Pauley Pavilion. Bartow said he had been pleased with the team’s defensive trajectory until a recent stretch in which it gave up 84 points or more in three of four games, including 104 points against Stanford on Saturday.

The game against the Beavers represents the start of a three-game homestand and what might constitute a last stand for the Bruins’ hopes of securing a top-four seeding in the Pac-12 tournament and the accompanying first-round bye.

UCLA is in ninth place in the conference standings but is only 1½ games behind fourth-place Utah. The Bruins must also leapfrog Colorado, Stanford, USC and Oregon to complete their quest for the first-round bye; they have games remaining against four of the teams they are trying to overtake.

“These are three important games for us,” Bartow said of a homestand that also includes games against Oregon and USC, “if we’ve got any chance at that last spot” for a bye.

UCLA freshman guards David Singleton and Jules Bernard are among the players who have benefited from the emphasis on individual development, having recently strung together some of their best games.

Bartow said he was working with Singleton to be less analytical and more free flowing in the way he runs the offense as the backup to starting point guard Jaylen Hands.

“I want him to play with a little more reckless abandon because he’s very safe, he can be robotic at times,” Bartow said. “Sometimes he needs to play with a little more wild energy to him, and I think it would help him.”

Singleton said that sort of change would entail more slashing toward the basket to open up his three-point shooting.

Bernard, who has developed a reputation for blindly attacking the basket, is trying to diversify his approach by looking to make lobs or passes to shooters for open three-pointers, moves that would open up driving lanes later in the game.

“He likes to put his head down and get to the rim and every now and then he makes some mistakes,” Bartow said, “but he’s a bulldog.”

Bernard and Singleton said they appreciated the emphasis on player development, which doesn’t necessarily force the Bruins to choose between winning now or later.

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“For us to grow individually,” Bernard said, “will help us grow collectively.”

UP NEXT

VS. OREGON STATE

When: Thursday, 8 p.m.

Where: Pauley Pavilion.

On the air: TV: FS1; Radio: 570.

Update: The Beavers have won four of their last five games, including a road sweep of Utah and Colorado, to move into second place in the Pac-12 standings. When UCLA faced Oregon State last month in Corvallis, the Bruins held a 47-46 lead before fading over the final 11 minutes of a 79-66 setback.

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