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UCLA coach Mick Cronin is really unimpressed by his team after loss to San Diego State

UCLA head coach Mick Cronin gestures during a game against Arizona State.
Coach Mick Cronin, shown last season against Arizona State, said the Bruins “pout on defense” when things don’t go their way on offense.
(Ringo H.W. Chiu / Associated Press)

The overconfidence that Mick Cronin feared could be his team’s undoing should no longer be an issue.

Nationally ranked and picked to win the Pac-12 Conference, UCLA looked average at best in its season opener.

The No. 22 Bruins were missing two of their top players because of injuries and suffered from several other no-shows while getting flattened in a 73-58 loss to San Diego State on Wednesday night at Viejas Arena.

Chris Smith, the UCLA senior guard who returned for one more college season to boost his NBA stock, might have wished scouts from the Clippers, Golden State Warriors, Dallas Mavericks and Utah Jazz had not bothered to show up. He went scoreless after halftime, finishing with 10 points on three-for-seven shooting in only 27 minutes before fouling out.

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San Diego State also flummoxed UCLA sophomore point guard Tyger Campbell, who finished with as nearly as many turnovers (three) as assists (four) while failing to help his team find any sort of sustained offensive rhythm. A team that had hoped to get out and run finished with one fastbreak point.

“We couldn’t get a stop and we couldn’t get a rebound,” Cronin said, “so that was the end of the fastbreak.”

San Diego State outmuscled UCLA, collecting five more offensive rebounds than the Bruins, and outscored them 24-12 in the paint. The Aztecs also stymied nearly everything UCLA wanted to do, forcing 15 turnovers that resulted in a carryover to their defensive effort.

“What happened for us is when things don’t go our way on offense,” Cronin said, “we pout on defense and that’s the No. 1 trait of a losing team.”

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The Aztecs extended their perimeter defense with the Bruins missing redshirt junior forward Jalen Hill, their top post player and rebounder. The results weren’t pretty for UCLA, which made seven of 21 three-pointers (33.3%).

UCLA was also missing the defensive tenaciousness that had sparked its 11-3 finish last season, recording just two blocks and one steal while playing in an empty arena that featured a few hundred cardboard cutouts of fans behind the baskets. There wasn’t much for new Bruins athletic director Martin Jarmond to cheer in his seat three rows behind the team bench.

“We didn’t follow the scouting report at all,” Cronin said, noting that assistant coach Rod Palmer was familiar with San Diego State’s style as a former Aztecs assistant. “We got beat off the dribble, we walked away from shooters — we did mind-boggling stuff, to be honest with you. Like total regression. Total regression.”

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Sophomore guard Jaime Jaquez Jr. led the Bruins (0-1) with 17 points and redshirt junior forward Cody Riley added 14 points and 12 rebounds while filling in for Hill. It wasn’t nearly enough.

“We didn’t come out ready to play,” Jaquez said. “We weren’t the old team from last season.”

UCLA was missing two of its top players with Hill held out because of tendinitis in his right knee and sophomore guard Johnny Juzang sidelined because of a stress reaction in his right foot. Neither participated in warmups and Juzang stood watching his teammates with his foot encased in a protective walking boot.

Hill was listed as day to day and closer to a return than Juzang, the Kentucky transfer who was considered week to week. A stress reaction is a precursor to a stress fracture and treatment usually involves rest, though Cronin said he was hopeful that Juzang could shed the walking boot in the next day or two.

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Smith picked up his fourth foul with 11 minutes left, removed his mouthpiece and headed to the bench with his team down by 10. Cronin had no choice but to reinsert his best player a little more than two minutes later with the Aztecs having extended their advantage to 16.

It made no difference.

UCLA’s season opener against San Diego State on Wednesday could provide the Bruins with a good barometer as to where they might stand this season.

Guard Jordan Schakel and forward Matt Mitchell scored 15 points apiece to lead the Aztecs (1-0), who carried over some of the momentum from their 30-win season that was halted abruptly in March by the coronavirus.

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UCLA couldn’t sustain a hot start in which it made six of its first eight shots to open the game, the Bruins going cold for a prolonged stretch and repeatedly turning the ball over thanks in part to a flurry of offensive fouls.

“You’re not going to go into San Diego State and jump-shoot your way to victory,” Cronin said. “That’s why the game started out as fool’s gold for us and I knew it.”

San Diego State took its first lead with a little more than eight minutes left in the first half as part of a 12-4 run made possible by the Bruins committing six turnovers in nine minutes. The Aztecs eventually built a 34-28 halftime thanks in large part to UCLA’s 10 turnovers to that point, including three by Jaquez.

“We got this reality check right now,” Jaquez said. “We got to be better as a team and just keep getting better as the season goes on. Because obviously, as you guys saw, that’s not the team that we’re trying to be and we’re striving to be for this year.”

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If there was a familiarity it was because the Bruins looked a lot like the team that staggered its way to an 8-9 record midway through Cronin’s first season, unsteady on offense and unwilling to exert the defensive effort that keyed its strong finish.

“We struggled to score tonight and when your mind’s not on what you’re supposed to be doing and what your coach is telling you to do,” Cronin said, “it tells you your mind is somewhere else. So I told them, I will get their mind on the right things.”


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