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UCLA Sports

UCLA basketball coach Murry Bartow plans to turn up the pressure

Kris Wilkes, Andre Kelly
UCLA guard Kris Wilkes and forward Jalen Hill block a shot from California forward Andre Kelly during a Bruins win on Jan. 5.
(Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

It was never going to be confused with Nolan Richardson’s “40 Minutes of Hell,” the ode to pressure defense that once frightened Arkansas’ opponents every time they inbounded the ball.

But Murry Bartow’s version of pressure had been effective in his first few games as UCLA’s interim coach. Backcourt traps had generated a flurry of turnovers in victories over Stanford and California before nudging the Bruins to a crazy comeback against Oregon.

Curiously, the Bruins lessened the pressure over their last two games, both losses.

“We just backed out of it a little bit for some various reasons,” Bartow said Tuesday. “We still did it some, but maybe didn’t do it quite as much the last couple of games.”

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Bartow predicted that the Bruins (10-8, 3-2 Pac-12) would increase their pressure during a two-game homestand that starts against Arizona State (13-5, 4-2) on Thursday night at Pauley Pavilion.

His players seemed enthusiastic about a plan that could help a long and athletic team maximize its strengths.

“When we speed teams up and create turnovers,” guard Jules Bernard said, “we have the players to get those steals and push it in transition to get easy baskets.”

UCLA’s backcourt traps helped it force 13 turnovers against Stanford and 18 against Cal. Against Oregon, Bruins guard Prince Ali forced a turnover in the backcourt in the final minute of regulation that allowed UCLA to force overtime.

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Probably not coincidentally, UCLA averaged 92 points in those games while going 3-0.

The last two games, UCLA’s press has been pressed to do much. It was broken with relative ease when implemented against Oregon State and seemed only to bother USC when unveiled in the final minutes, helping the Bruins score the final 12 points in an 80-67 defeat.

A full game’s worth of that pressure might snap this skid.

“Teams are shooting the ball fast, turning it over,” point guard Jaylen Hands said. “We can get out in transition, where we’re really good, so it just ups the pace and we know we’re better when the pace is faster.”

Free but costly

As pitiful as they have been at shooting free throws, the Bruins are not on pace for a historically bad season.

The Bruins have made 61.1%, the worst percentage in the Pac-12 and No. 344 out of 351 Division I teams at the start of the week.

But there have been a handful of UCLA teams that were worse. From 1998 to 2000, the Bruins made only 59.2% of their free throws, as those who remember Dan Gadzuric clanking shot after shot will attest.

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Among current Bruins, forward Cody Riley is shooting 50% from the line and center Moses Brown a team-worst 33.3% while catapulting the ball toward the rim with his right hand. Brown appears to be regressing, making seven of 27 attempts (25.9%) over his last six games, including an 0-for-6 showing against USC on Saturday.

Bartow said afterward that he did not want to repeatedly bring up the subject with Brown for fear it could lead to a mental block.

“If he’s shooting with the right technique or as best he can and you’re repping it and repping it and repping it,” Bartow said, “it’s about all you can do.”

Starting to struggle

Forward Chris Smith rewarded Bartow for moving him into the starting lineup with strong showings during the Bruins’ first three Pac-12 games, helping win all three.

In the last two games, Smith has contributed little and the Bruins have lost both.

The splits have been jarring — in UCLA’s conference wins, Smith is averaging 9.7 points and six rebounds while shooting 45%; in its losses, he’s averaging one point and 2.5 rebounds while shooting 9.1%.

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Bartow said he played Smith some at power forward but considered him more of a perimeter-oriented player and would try to help him by moving him to spots where he’s more comfortable.

Bartow wouldn’t commit to Smith starting against Arizona State. If Smith doesn’t start, Bartow said, Riley and Jalen Hill would be the primary options to replace him.

ben.bolch@latimes.com

Follow Ben Bolch on Twitter @latbbolch


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