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UCLA’s surge has everything to do with just playing better

UCLA guard Tyger Campbell drives between Utah's Timmy Allen, left, and Lahat Thioune during a game Feb. 20 in Salt Lake City.
UCLA guard Tyger Campbell drives between Utah’s Timmy Allen, left, and Lahat Thioune during a game Feb. 20 in Salt Lake City.
(Alex Goodlett / Associated Press)

Fifty years from now, UCLA fans binge-watching game footage of this season’s team, from its December surrender to its February fortitude, might think someone made a mistake.

This can’t be the same team, right? Surely someone spliced together different seasons. How do you go from giving up easy baskets, unable to stay in front of anybody, to locking down nearly everybody while making opposing offenses appear inept?

Almost everything has changed for the Bruins (16-11 overall, 9-5 Pac-12 Conference) heading into a Saturday showdown against No. 18 Colorado (21-6, 10-4) at the CU Events Center. They’ve stopped helping on defense for no reason. They’re talking more. Their big men have made the area around the basket a wasteland even for skilled scorers, allowing the guards to better patrol the perimeter.

In a way, though, it’s as if everything’s the same. The central tenets of coach Mick Cronin’s defense have never wavered despite his players’ early inability to execute almost any of them.

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“We haven’t changed anything; we’re just doing it better,” sophomore guard David Singleton said late Thursday night after the Bruins’ latest defensive masterpiece, a 69-58 victory over Utah. “We just got used to Cronin’s style. To be honest, we started playing hard. We’re putting in more effort on defense every game.”

Singleton has been a major part of the transformation. UCLA has won eight of 11 games since Singleton moved into the starting lineup against Stanford last month, his influence felt from the film room to the practice court to games that have become a lot more enjoyable thanks to his earnest approach.

“He takes everything as serious as some of our other guys need to take it,” Cronin said. “It’s just a maturing process. Dave’s mature. He’s more serious. Fun-loving young guys are good, but there’s a time you’ve got to be focused, so Dave has a senior’s mentality, that’s what I’m trying to say. That’s helped us a lot.”

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Singleton’s gravitas has rubbed off on teammates now eager to absorb the game plans. Against Utah, that meant funneling sharpshooters into the lane, where they faced the long arms of forwards Jalen Hill and Cody Riley. The Utes didn’t make a three-pointer until there was 10 minutes left in the game and they trailed by 20 points.

UCLA improved to 15-0 when holding teams to 73 points or fewer and showed once again that its defense can help it withstand off nights from top players. Guard Chris Smith, the team’s leading scorer, was held to nine points against Utah, and it hardly mattered.

Chris Smith’s change in his approach has resulted in a turnaround for UCLA. The junior guard leads the team in scoring at 13.3 points a game.

The Bruins also continued to grasp how defense generates offense. Sophomore guard Jules Bernard turned an early steal into a breakaway dunk that sparked his game-high 16 points off the bench.

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“That kind of got my juices flowing,” Bernard said.

Defense has unquestionably fueled the Bruins’ recent surge. They have held opponents to an average of 59.1 points in their last eight victories and have seen a corresponding uptick in the metrics. Their adjusted defensive efficiency, according to basketball analyst Ken Pomeroy, ranks No. 140 nationally, up from over 200 last month.

The improvement has thrust Cronin into discussions for Pac-12 coach of the year only a few months after some Bruins fans were questioning his hire.

“When you don’t have breakdowns,” Cronin said, “your strategy looks better.”

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UCLA’s outlook has also changed, the Bruins no longer harboring NCAA tournament hopes that would require a miracle, just more strong defensive showings starting Saturday against one of the conference’s top teams.

“I think it’s great,” Cronin said, “that we’ve put ourselves in a situation to play in a meaningful game.”

UP NEXT FOR UCLA

AT COLORADO

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When: Saturday, 1 p.m. PST.

Where: CU Events Center, Boulder, Colo.

On the air: TV: Channel 2; Radio: 1150.

Update: UCLA’s 72-68 victory over Colorado last month followed a similar blueprint to the Bruins’ win over Utah on Thursday — they built a big lead thanks to tenacious defense and withstood some late turnovers forced by full-court pressure. They hope the parallels continue. “We’re coming into this Colorado matchup looking to do the same thing we did [against Utah],” UCLA sophomore guard Jules Bernard said. “Play physical defense, play tough and play smart and hopefully we’ll get the win.” The Bruins could conceivably move into a tie atop the Pac-12 standings with a victory on a court where they have not prevailed since January 2017.


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