The surest sign of a team transformed might have come from a player sitting out of bounds at midcourt.
As Cody Riley waited to check into UCLA’s last game, the sophomore forward yelled defensive instructions to his teammates.
“That’s a big change for us,” coach Mick Cronin said. “Progress.”
In recent weeks, Cronin’s team has been doing all sorts of new things. The Bruins have been talking, defending … and winning. UCLA (12-10 overall, 5-4 Pac-12 Conference) has won four of its last five games heading into a desert duel against Arizona State (13-8, 4-4) on Thursday night at Desert Financial Arena, a surge that precipitated another kind of triumph.
The Bruins are also winning on the recruiting front.
Jaylen Clark, a senior shooting guard from Rancho Cucamonga Etiwanda High who is considered an elite defender and the kind of gritty player who fits perfectly into the Cronin mold, committed to the Bruins on Wednesday after having watched their victory over Utah in person last weekend as part of his official visit.
Clark is expected to sign with the team in April, giving UCLA another talented wing player to go along with incoming point guard Daishen Nix.
It’s starting to feel like a turning point for a team likely to miss the NCAA tournament for a second consecutive season, an upward trajectory borne out of defeat.
“Failure is the best teacher,” junior guard Chris Smith said, “and we’ve had quite a bit of that.”
Not recently. Picked by the media to finish eighth in the Pac-12, the Bruins now sit alone in sixth at the midpoint of conference play, only 1½ games behind first-place Oregon. UCLA’s trip to the desert, which also includes a game against No. 23 Arizona on Saturday, could determine whether the Bruins make something more out of this season than incremental progress.
Sweep the two games, and they could start thinking about making an improbable late-season run.
Split them, and they’re pretty much back where they started, left to focus on small gains.
Lose both, and their midseason surge would end with a splat.
Freshman guard Tyger Campbell acknowledged a new buzz among the Bruins after they completed their first weekend sweep in Pac-12 play with victories over Colorado and Utah.
“There’s a different energy,” Campbell said. “You know, we’re winning so we’re all excited, we’re all geeked up but we’re not trying to get too high on it.”
As evidence of his efforts to stay level-headed, Campbell mentioned the team’s two “big practices” before departing on a trip that will start with an opponent fighting to stay in NCAA tournament contention. Arizona State proved to be a bad matchup for UCLA last season, handing it double-digit losses in each of their two meetings, including one in which the Bruins scored the game’s first 11 points.
The Sun Devils’ slew of small guards, led by Remy Martin, scurried for open three-pointers or monstrous dunks, getting whatever they wanted against a defense that seemed powerless to stop them. Smith said Arizona State’s style made stopping it difficult.
“They’re just like a freelance group,” Smith said. “Just guys that can spread you out, you know? You try and shrink the floor on teams, but they just drive and kick. Their coach, you know, he lets them play. So, it’s a lot of creativity on their side of the court.”
UCLA’s defense has stiffened considerably in recent weeks, allowing an average just 63.8 points over its last five games. The telltale defensive statistic has been the Bruins’ ability to defend the three-point line; they’re allowing opponents to shoot only 30.5% in the games UCLA has won compared to 44.4% in its losses.
Coincidentally, Arizona State has made exactly 30.5% of its three-pointers this season, worst in the Pac-12.
More than the numbers are starting to align for the Bruins given how far they’ve come the last few weeks, particularly on defense.
“Defensively, if you’re not a unit, you’re not going to hold people to the points that we’ve been holding them to recently,” Smith said, “so I think for sure, we’re coming together, we’re clicking finally.”
UP NEXT FOR UCLA: AT ARIZONA STATE
When: Thursday, 8 p.m. PST.
Where: Desert Financial Arena, Tempe, Ariz.
On the air: TV: ESPN2; Radio: 570.
Update: The one statistic that won’t guarantee victory for UCLA but could almost assure the Bruins of defeat, especially on the road, is turnovers. They have committed an average of 12 turnovers in their Pac-12 victories and 15 in their conference losses, including 22 in their last road game at Oregon. The Ducks generated 34 points off those turnovers on the way to a 96-75 blowout. “Live-ball turnovers turn into points for the other team,” Smith said, “which pretty much destroys team morale on your end.”