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UCLA Sports

UCLA basketball focuses on staying in front of its opponents

UCLA forward Shareef O’Neal stays in front of Chaminade guard Kendall Small as he shoots during a game Nov. 26 at the Maui Invitational.
UCLA forward Shareef O’Neal stays in front of Chaminade guard Kendall Small as he shoots during a game Nov. 26 at the Maui Invitational.
(Darryl Oumi / Getty Images)

It’s a collective defensive approach that sounds like a garage band.

“Mick and the Frontmen” could become a huge hit inside Pauley Pavilion for UCLA coach Mick Cronin and the Bruins if they can master the central concepts.

Stay in front of your man. Keep your teammates from having to rotate over to help. Clog the driving lanes that lead to easy baskets.

“The front line of your defense is always going to determine how good you are defensively because everything stems from that,” Cronin said earlier this week. “The more you’re in a rotation, the better teams will exploit it, which we have found out so far this year.”

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Cronin’s early UCLA defense bears little resemblance to those that brought him here, which could be expected given the dynamic of a young team adjusting to a new coach.

The UCLA women’s soccer team scored the first goal but was outplayed the rest of the way in a 4-1 loss to Stanford in an NCAA soccer semifinal.

The Bruins have had trouble staying in front of their man. Their teammates have continually been forced into rotations. Easy baskets have become routine.

UCLA’s adjusted defensive ranking was No. 159 nationally as of Saturday, according to the metrics of basketball analyst Ken Pomeroy. That puts Cronin on track for his worst season in that category since his second team at Murray State finished No. 193 during the 2004-05 season, though there’s plenty of season left for the Bruins to nudge their ranking upward.

Cronin’s teams at Cincinnati never finished with an adjusted defensive ranking of worse than No. 121, and his final nine teams were ranked No. 28 or better. All nine of those teams played in the NCAA tournament.

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The Bruins (6-3) are using a light December schedule that resumes Sunday afternoon with a game against Denver (4-5) at Pauley Pavilion to work on a variety of defensive concepts such as rotations and positioning that have been an issue over the season’s first month.

“A lot of defense is picking angles and learning how to play defense,” redshirt freshman guard Tyger Campbell said, “as opposed to just going out and trying to be quicker, faster, stronger than the other team.”

Cronin said Campbell provided his favorite moment of a recent victory over San Jose State when he held his ground in the first half to take a charge, calling it “by far the best defensive play in the game for us.”

While Prince Ali’s shinning moment might have come against Kentucky as he helped UCLA topple the No. 1 Wildcats in 2015, he’s focused on how he can help the Bruins win now.

Other defensive moments have not been so memorable. UCLA couldn’t defend the three-point line while giving up 88 points to Hofstra during a home loss and struggled with its rotations during a 15-point setback against Brigham Young.

Bruins freshman forward Jaime Jaquez Jr. said players are still learning how to recover when a teammate gets beat defensively. They are also trying to talk more to help each other get into the right position.

“Talking is a huge thing,” Jaquez said.

UCLA’s roster features nine players who are at least 6 feet 6, but being long and athletic doesn’t make one a good defender by itself.

“I’ve coached guys who could really jump but couldn’t guard anybody,” Cronin said. “A lot of it’s your lower body and how it functions from a technique standpoint. And then understanding angles.”

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Those are among the things that will help the Bruins stay in front of their man.

“It’s the most important thing of any defense,” Cronin said. “You’ve got to find a way to keep the ball from being driven past you somehow.”

UCLA TODAY

VS. DENVER

When: 2 p.m. Sunday

Where: Pauley Pavilion.

On the air: TV: Pac-12 Networks; Radio: 1150.

Update: Senior guard Ade Murkey (12.2 points per game) and sophomore guard Jase Townsend (11.8 ppg) both average double figures in scoring for the Pioneers, who are coming off a 67-58 victory over Jackson State on Tuesday but have gone 1-2 against opponents from California, beating Cal State Fullerton while losing to Santa Clara and UC Riverside.


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