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No offense, but UCLA’s better half under Mick Cronin isn’t defense

UCLA coach Mick Cronin shouts instructions to his players during Thursday's win over Utah at Pauley Pavilion.
UCLA coach Mick Cronin shouts instructions during Thursday’s win over Utah at Pauley Pavilion.
(Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

In one final 2020 oddity that Mick Cronin is eager to leave behind, his UCLA defense is lagging far behind its offense.

Cronin has always been known as a defensive coach, his final nine teams at Cincinnati ranking No. 28 or higher nationally in defensive efficiency, according to the metrics of Ken Pomeroy.

The trend changed in Cronin’s first season at UCLA, if only because the Bruins were so atrocious defensively. They ranked No. 112 in defensive efficiency amid a flurry of blown coverages while ranking No. 51 in offensive efficiency, reminding no one of the Bruins of Lonzo Ball.

UCLA heads into 2021 with what’s shaping up as the most efficient offense of Cronin’s career, ranking No. 11 in offensive efficiency. That’s easily on pace to shatter his previous best ranking of No. 34 during the 2016-17 season at Cincinnati.

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It was far from pretty, but UCLA men’s basketball leaned on some timely sharpshooting to remain unbeaten in Pac-12 play with a 72-70 win over Utah.

The tradeoff for an offense that hums, according to Cronin, is coming on the defensive end.

“This group of guys is trying to outscore their opponents because we shoot the ball better and I think they believe in what we’re doing on offense,” Cronin said Thursday night after the Bruins held off Utah 72-70, leaving them with a defensive efficiency ranked No. 68. “To me, that’s the mind-set of the players and that’s why we’re not where we need to be defensively.”

UCLA (6-2 overall, 2-0 Pac-12 Conference) remained tied with Oregon atop the conference standings heading into a Saturday showdown with Colorado (7-2, 1-1) at Pauley Pavilion because it got the stop it needed in the final seconds against the Utes, with guard Jules Bernard intercepting a pass before the clock ran out.

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Highlights from UCLA’s 72-70 win over Utah on Thursday.

Cronin cracked afterward that it was probably the only thing defensively he was happy about. Utah guard Alfonso Plummer scorched the Bruins early and Utes guard Timmy Allen burned them late, the duo combining for 40 points on 15-for-30 shooting. UCLA also gave up 22 points in the paint in the second half after having allowed only six before halftime, a trend that can’t continue if the Bruins intend to withstand the crafty play of Colorado point guard McKinley Wright IV.

“Our toughness level is nowhere near where it needs to be for us to reach our potential as a team,” Cronin said.

Many of the breakdowns started with the Bruins’ inability to stay in front of their man. Utah also patiently probed the defense, often waiting until late in the shot clock to find an opening created by an inability to sustain attentiveness.

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“They really kept us on defense for 25 seconds many, many times,” Cronin said, “and we didn’t have enough toughness to finish a lot of those possessions.”

Dominique Darius is facing a “win-win” situation in short term with the UCLA women’s basketball team as she makes the quick jump from high school.

Bernard, who has emerged as the Bruins’ best perimeter defender, provided a rare defensive highlight when he helped lock down Plummer after a hot start in which Plummer made his first five shots. UCLA guard Johnny Juzang started the game on Plummer and acknowledged afterward that he should have played him tighter, forcing him to drive to the basket.

It was just one of many regrets to go around.

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“As a coaching staff and as a team,” Cronin said, “we’ve got to look in the mirror to become a better defensive team.”

Up next for UCLA: Colorado on Monday

When: 5 p.m.

Where: Pauley Pavilion.

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On the air: TV: Pac-12 Networks; Radio: 570.

Update: UCLA guard Chris Smith’s status remained unknown for the game after he suffered a bruised left knee late in the first half against Utah. He returned in the second half, making a pivotal three-pointer, before exiting again in the final minute. His absence would be a big factor against Colorado given the success he had as part of the Bruins’ sweep of the Buffaloes last season, scoring a career-high 30 points in the first matchup before making a career-high four three-pointers on the way to 14 points in the second matchup. “He’s obviously an essential piece to our team,” Bernard said. “But if we can’t have him the next game, we’re just gonna next man up. We have a lot of great players who do a lot for our team so we just got to sort of try to fill in that gap as best as possible.”


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