After a lengthy holiday break, UCLA eager to ring in another game
Mac Etienne spent Christmas alone in a dorm room. Chris Smith ate chicken, salmon and mashed potatoes with his older brother in their Westwood apartment. Jaime Jaquez Jr. drove across Southern California for a small gathering limited to immediate family.
Home for the holidays took on a new meaning for UCLA’s basketball players.
“Bad things about a pandemic, man,” coach Mick Cronin said Wednesday, referring to Etienne having to isolate while in quarantine after traveling from out of state to join his new teammates.
Etienne emerged from quarantine Wednesday, a sunny metaphor for a team trying to turn the page after an unintentional layoff spanning nearly two weeks. If all goes well, UCLA (5-2 overall, 1-0 Pac-12 Conference) will resume play Thursday against Utah (4-1, 1-0) at Pauley Pavilion in what would be the Bruins’ first game since losing to Ohio State on Dec. 19.
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Cronin said four officials had been assigned to work the game instead of the usual three in a nod to COVID-19. UCLA’s game against Oregon scheduled for Dec. 23 was postponed after one official tested positive for the virus and the other two were placed into quarantine because the three-man crew had worked another game the previous night.
The Pac-12 has added an alternate referee to its crews the rest of the season to avoid any more postponements because of a lack of available game officials.
The timing of UCLA’s game against Oregon — two days before Christmas — precluded it from being made up the next day, Cronin said, because he wanted his players to be able to return home for the holidays. The mood on the plane ride back to Los Angeles wasn’t exactly jolly.
“I’d say we were disappointed, for sure, because the only reason we were in Eugene, Ore., was to play a basketball game and we didn’t get to do that,” Smith said of the postponement, “but with times being like they are now, it’s just a lot of things are out of our hands.”
Nobody boarded another plane to go home for Christmas, which would have necessitated a quarantine period upon their return. Cronin provided his own safety advice before players dispersed over the three-day break, telling them to be extra careful if their family hosted any visitors from out of town.
“I added a few adjectives,” Cronin said, “and I said, ‘You know, it might be smart to wear your mask.’ ”
Cronin equated a period in which his team has practiced three times in nine days to the NBA’s All-Star break, saying he feared it could hinder players’ timing and conditioning while potentially benefiting them later in the season because of the additional rest, barring a shutdown related to the virus.
As millions of Americans have begun to receive COVID-19 vaccines that could eventually return life to its normal rhythms, Cronin said college basketball players should not be high on the priority list.
“My opinion would be for all of us that we need to be in line behind the people that medically need it, that are medically at risk,” Cronin said. “Whether it’s their health issues and frontline workers, people at the hospital that are working every day. We need to wait. Just because we’re playing basketball doesn’t mean anything. We need to be, we’re probably all last in line to be honest with you.”
Up next for UCLA: Thursday vs. Utah
When: 4 p.m.
Where: Pauley Pavilion.
On the air: TV: FS1; Radio: 570.
Update: Utah has won in large part because it’s plus-nine in turnovers per game this season, ranking No. 5 nationally in that category. “They’ve really excelled in steals, and they take care of the ball,” Cronin said of the Utes, who are averaging only 9.4 turnovers per game. “So I’ve never seen a team this plus in the turnover situation.” Utah’s primary weakness has been getting outrebounded by an average of 5.4 per game. The Utes have lost nine consecutive Pac-12 road games, their last win coming at Washington State in February 2019.
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