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Five ways UCLA can tweak its approach to avoid marching to a sad ending

UCLA's Jaime Jaquez Jr., left, and Tyger Campbell battle Oregon State's Gianni Hunt for the ball.
UCLA’s Jaime Jaquez Jr., left, and Tyger Campbell battle Oregon State’s Gianni Hunt for the ball during a Pac-12 quarterfinal game Thursday in Las Vegas.
(John Locher / Associated Press)

Something needs to change. Actually, a lot of things do.

UCLA cannot head into the NCAA tournament — assuming it gets there — using the same formula it has employed over the last few weeks, however well it’s worked for the first 30 minutes or so of each game.

It’s a formula that gave the Bruins a two-point lead over Colorado with seven minutes left, a nine-point lead over Oregon with 11 minutes left, an eight-point lead over USC with five minutes left and a seven-point lead over Oregon State with five minutes left in regulation.

The Bruins lost all four games, allowing their opponents to shoot 58% in the second half while getting outscored by a combined margin of 75-31 over the final minutes.

The starters have been worn to a nub, the defense has faltered and the losses have piled up for a team that won its first eight conference games and used to prevail in nearly every tight finish.

After the Bruins’ latest collapse resulted in an 83-79 overtime loss to Oregon State in a Pac-12 Conference tournament quarterfinal on Thursday, coach Mick Cronin alluded to his team having lost the defensive identity that fueled its late-season run a year ago.

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UCLA opens play in the Pac-12 tournament Thursday against Oregon State on a losing streak, but coach Mick Cronin wants the Bruins to keep fighting.

That’s only part of the problem. Before UCLA (17-9) absorbs any further madness, here are five suggestions that could help the Bruins avoid going 0-for-March:

— Prioritize defense. A year ago, while winning 11 of its final 14 games, UCLA withstood a clunky offense because of a defense that made throwing even one clean pass a chore.

At the time, the Bruins relied on a starting lineup of Chris Smith, Jalen Hill, Jaime Jaquez Jr., Tyger Campbell and David Singleton. That lineup has not started one game together this season.

Hill missed the first two games with knee tendinitis and never fully rounded into form, ceding his starting spot to Cody Riley before departing in early February because of personal issues. Smith was lost for the season on the final day of December with a knee injury. Singleton has started only one game, though he’s enjoyed a recent spike in both playing time and productivity.

Given the team’s lack of consistent shooters, it must go with its best defensive lineup as much as possible. That means more of guard Jaylen Clark despite his occasional freshman lapses. It also means relying more heavily on the bench before the final minutes to keep the starters fresher so that they won’t wilt.

The team’s lack of rim protection, which creates other such issues as perimeter defenders having to sag off their man, is something that could be solved only by the return of Hill or an incoming post player.

Oregon State's Warith Alatishe shoots around UCLA's David Singleton, left, and Mac Etienne.
Oregon State’s Warith Alatishe shoots around UCLA’s David Singleton, left, and Mac Etienne on Thursday in Las Vegas.
(John Locher / Associated Press)

— Find more rest for Campbell in the second half. It’s hard to take the team’s only true point guard out of games, given the way the offense tends to stagnate when he’s off the floor, but an exhausted Campbell hasn’t been productive.

In the first halves of the last four games, when he’s played 65:54 out of a possible 80 minutes, Campbell has logged 13 assists and four turnovers. In the second halves and overtime of those games, when he’s played 79:25 out of a possible 85 minutes, Campbell has collected eight assists and seven turnovers.

In one key second-half sequence Thursday, Campbell fell to the floor after missing a layup and jogged back on defense, leading to an open three-pointer that helped spark the Beavers’ comeback.

— Keep Singleton in the game whenever possible. Just like last season, the shooting guard has been a steadying presence as his role has increased.

He logged a team-best plus-10 rating — meaning the Bruins outscored their opponent by 10 points when he was on the court — in two of the last three games. But Singleton did not play in overtime against Oregon State after Cronin reinserted Johnny Juzang, who had played less than five minutes in the second half.

Cronin said Juzang was limited by the ankle that had caused him to miss the USC game.

“He was getting fatigued,” Cronin said, “and it was killing him defensively.”

UCLA enters the Pac-12 tournament with a decent chance of making the NCAA tournament, but coach Mick Cronin wants more than just a win or two.

— Find Mr. Clutch. Smith filled this role before he went down, but the team has failed to find a replacement.

The job description involves more than making big shots in the final minutes. Somebody needs to step up as a leader, galvanizing the team when things get tough and helping it rediscover the winning DNA that was forged earlier in the season.

After prevailing in 10 of their first 11 games that were decided by five points or fewer or went to overtime, the Bruins have dropped their last two.

— Keep attacking. UCLA’s offense has devolved into isolation plays and high screen-and-rolls that have gone nowhere late in games, leading to empty possessions.

The Bruins must sustain the ball movement that leads to better shots, a big part of the reason their offensive efficiency is still ranked No. 24 nationally according to basketball analyst Ken Pomeroy.

Something has to change. Cronin acknowledged as much recently when he mentioned having told his players that repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results was the definition of insanity.

The basketball gods aren’t crazy, but going any deeper into March with this same approach would be.


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