UCLA’s star-starved team struggling to stay near top of Pac-12
The duct tape is fraying, the glue cracking, the string unraveling.
Everything that held UCLA together through the loss of its best player and a flurry of close finishes in which the Bruins consistently found a way to prevail is cracking at its foundation.
Three losses in four games have knocked UCLA out of first place in the Pac-12 Conference. Judging by the way the Bruins played Thursday against Washington State, an opponent that usually portrays the role of the Washington Generals to their Harlem Globetrotters, things may not have bottomed out.
UCLA fans who missed the game because it was shown on FS2 after a delayed auto race hogged FS1 should be grateful.
UCLA fell on the road 81-73 to Washington State on Thursday and lost a share of the top spot in the Pac-12 standings.
Forward Cody Riley returned from a sprained ankle only to become a nonfactor in his foul-plagued, 10-minute cameo. The Bruins looked out of sorts on offense until a desperate late-game push, nobody supporting Tyger Campbell’s tenaciousness or Johnny Juzang’s scoring. The defense was the biggest abomination, the Bruins once again neglecting to defend the three-point line.
After his team fell one game behind rival USC in the conference standings, UCLA coach Mick Cronin verbally threw up his hands as if to acknowledge this sort of ragged play should occasionally be expected from a star-starved team.
“I told you guys we were not a juggernaut,” Cronin said after the 81-73 loss to the Cougars. “We got to grind out victories. That’s just the way it is. Our talent is what it is. We got good enough players to get wins. But we’re not gonna win any games giving up 81 points.”
Anyone keeping track knows the ceiling on this team keeps getting lowered to the point where the Bruins (13-5 overall, 9-3 Pac-12) have to do the limbo just to get across the room. Five-star point guard Daishen Nix spurned UCLA for the G League over the summer. Top player Chris Smith was lost to a season-ending knee injury on the final day of 2020. Riley missed the USC game with an injury, and fellow forward Jalen Hill has no timetable for a return after missing the last two games because of personal issues.
UCLA coach Mick Cronin talks about the Bruins’ 81-73 loss to Washington State on Thursday.
It’s left the Bruins with mostly a hodgepodge of wing players who are nice complementary pieces but can’t carry a top-level team. Campbell and Juzang are the only guards who can get their own shots without the benefit of teammates screening and passing, but their efficiency has been a season-long issue. Juzang has made 31.9% of his three-pointers and Campbell has shot 27.3% from beyond the arc.
UCLA seemed as if it was in a hurry to get off a low-percentage shot for much of the loss to the Cougars, but Cronin pinned the loss squarely on his defense.
“Terrible. Terrible,” Cronin said, repeating his critique for emphasis. “Our problems defensively, or the lack of discipline, that I have to fix. Frustration with certain guys, telling them exactly what to do and they’re not getting the job done.”
Guard Jaime Jaquez Jr. absorbed Cronin’s wrath during a timeout after failing to adequately rotate on defense early in the second half, but his struggles were not unique. It was the second consecutive game that the Bruins had gotten scorched from the three-point line, the Cougars making 13 of 22 shots from long range.
The Bruins need to make their fixes quickly or risk falling further in the conference standings and onto the NCAA tournament bubble. Beating Washington (3-15, 2-11) on Saturday at Alaska Airlines Arena is a necessity for a team that’s at least identified where it must improve on defense.
Teammates are excited what UCLA forward Mac Etienne will do on the court during the Bruins’ trip to the Pacific Northwest.
“Getting beat off the dribble, that’s what’s creating these rotations where everybody’s rotating and scrambling,” Juzang said. “Look, we know what we need to do better. We’ve got to be tougher and more disciplined.”
A year ago, UCLA commenced an epic late-season run, winning 11 of 14 games. Among those piling on the praise was legendary Bruin Gail Goodrich, who said there had been no team in school history more deserving of fans’ respect.
Now the Bruins might be glad they’re playing in empty arenas until they can piece together a crumbling season.
Up next for UCLA: at Washington
When: 4:30 p.m.
Where: Alaska Airlines Arena, Seattle.
On the air: TV: Pac-12 Networks; Radio: 570.
Update: The Huskies have dropped four in a row since a two-game winning streak late last month, including a 69-54 loss to USC on Thursday in which star guard Quade Green went scoreless over the last 13½ minutes. UCLA struggled to beat Washington in the first meeting between the teams this season, rallying from a 10-point halftime deficit for an 81-76 victory.
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