Twenty-one games into its season, UCLA may be coming of age.
A heretofore callow group of mostly freshmen and sophomores appears to have matured after solidifying its lineup, more clearly defining roles and finally exhibiting the dogged defense that coach Mick Cronin wants.
The Bruins have won three of their last four games, including their first triumph over a nationally ranked team in nearly two years.
UCLA’s upset of No. 20 Colorado on Thursday required a determined defensive effort and a career’s worth of points from junior guard Chris Smith, but it doesn’t seem like a stretch to say this team may finally be getting it.
“We got some young guys,” Smith said after pouring in a career-high 30 points, “but they don’t play like young guys.”
UCLA (11-10 overall, 4-4 Pac-12 Conference) gets another chance to exhibit growth on Sunday afternoon when it faces Utah (12-8, 3-5) at Pauley Pavilion. The Utes are 0-4 in conference road games this season, providing the Bruins with what seems like an ideal opportunity to notch their first weekend sweep in Pac-12 play.
Winning over the season’s first few months usually required the Bruins to maximize their strengths in rebounding and getting to the free-throw line. Now they’ve become a more complete team by recommitting to defense and finding a group of players who understand how they can best contribute.
Smith, still a youngster himself after only recently having turned 20, has become the go-to scorer, averaging 16.3 points in conference play and routinely getting the ball in late-game situations. He was constantly on the attack against Colorado, making 13 of 15 free throws after the Buffaloes had no choice but to foul him on drives toward the basket.
Redshirt sophomore forward Jalen Hill has become the designated stopper, leading the team in blocked shots and rebounding.
Freshman guard Jaime Jaquez Jr. has infused heady play and fearlessness, making three of four free throws over the final 24 seconds against Colorado.
“That’s not what a freshman [normally] would do,” Smith said. “I would have missed.”
The recent insertion of sophomore guard David Singleton into the starting lineup has steadied the offense while putting another capable ballhandler on the floor alongside freshman point guard Tyger Campbell.
Nearly three months into the season, the Bruins seem to have fully grasped that they won’t win without playing scrappy defense. They held California scoreless for 11 minutes during one stretch, limited Oregon State to 15 made shots and allowed Colorado to score just 27 points in the first half.
Not surprisingly, UCLA won all three games, improving to 11-0 when holding teams to 73 points or fewer.
The Bruins’ latest triumph came after they welcomed an old friend back into the fold. Redshirt senior guard Prince Ali, recently demoted to a reserve role, sparked a first-half run against Colorado with two three-pointers and made all three of his shots from long range on the way to 11 points.
It was Ali’s first double-digit output in nearly a month and came after a heartfelt conversation with the coach who had told him he was still very much needed on this team. Ali then went out and proved it.
“So many kids this day and age, if things aren’t going their way,” Cronin said, “play the victim instead of looking in the mirror. … Just really happy that he made those shots, for him, [and] obviously when the ball goes in, it helps the coach’s blood pressure.”
A coach whose volatile courtside demeanor earned him the nickname “Cronin the Barbarian” among some fans may have momentarily mellowed, thanks to a young roster that has bid farewell to its child’s play.
When: Sunday, Noon.
Where: Pauley Pavilion.
On the air: TV: FS1; Radio: 570.
Update: Utah came back from 22 points down to beat the Bruins at Pauley Pavilion last season on Parker Van Dyke’s buzzer-beating three-pointer, but Van Dyke has graduated and the Utes appear far less formidable without him. Forward Timmy Allen leads Utah with 18.7 points per game.