UCLA’s season won’t end as it envisioned without reversing its desert doldrums
As the UCLA players plodded out of the locker room toward the team bus, few making eye contact with the small group of reporters in a hallway, no definitive answers were forthcoming for the burning question.
Was this just a bump in the road on the way back to the Final Four or symbolic of bigger problems on a flawed team that won’t last nearly as long in March?
It’s still early February, and it’s only two losses. There’s a chance this is all forgotten in a matter of weeks. But if the third-ranked Bruins can’t solve the issues that stung like a desert scorpion during these setbacks against Arizona and Arizona State, they might not make it to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament.
They’re certain to tumble in the national rankings released Monday morning, but that’s the least of their worries.
UCLA struggled against the Wildcats’ length and the Sun Devils’ quickness. The Bruins committed dumb fouls in pivotal situations. They couldn’t make shots. Most concerning, they failed to recapture even a sliver of the defensive intensity that had carried them to three consecutive home victories the previous week in which the opponents all failed to notch 60 points.
Jaime Jaquez Jr. had 27 points and Johnny Juzang added 20, but No. 3 UCLA lost 87-84 at Arizona State in three overtimes and was swept in the desert.
The lingering memory of this desert distress might be Arizona’s Kerr Kriisa and Arizona State’s Marreon Jackson rising for open three-pointers against a defense intent on doubling the post but not offering much resistance on the perimeter.
Meanwhile, the Bruins (16-4 overall, 8-3 Pac-12) played as if they hadn’t shot a basketball in six months. They made a combined eight of 36 three-pointers (22.2%) in the two games, players who have often carried the team going uncharacteristically cold.
Johnny Juzang missed his final eight shots against Arizona State, including an airballed three-pointer in the final minute of the first overtime. Jules Bernard missed eight of 10 shots against the Sun Devils and spent much of the second half and three overtimes on the bench. Cody Riley continued to miss jumpers and have shots closer to the basket blocked.
“You’ve got to win when you don’t make shots, because that happens,” UCLA coach Mick Cronin said late Saturday night inside Desert Financial Arena after his team’s 87-84 setback, having discarded his suit for a white sweatshirt when he met with reporters. “You’ve got to defend. We had 21 deflections in 55 minutes. Our defense is right back to the drawing board.”
It probably didn’t help that Cronin didn’t go deeper into his bench. Juzang logged 51 minutes and fellow guards Tyger Campbell and Jaime Jaquez Jr. each played 50, making their shooting woes more understandable. Sharpshooter Jake Kyman, capable of breaking his team out of any funk, played only the game’s final two seconds.
Center Myles Johnson played 17 minutes to Riley’s 38 during a game in which Johnson clearly provided the better defensive energy, made both of his shots and grabbed nine rebounds to Riley’s five.
More troubling, there’s little the Bruins can do about their lack of height and athleticism. Guard Jaylen Clark, the team’s top defender, has been sidelined indefinitely after suffering a second concussion. Guard Peyton Watson, the team’s most nimble player, continues to commit freshman mistakes that make playing him heavy minutes in tight games difficult.
There also appears to be a disconnect between what Cronin is instructing his players to do and what they’re doing. With 1.4 seconds left in the first overtime, Jaquez hurled an inbounds pass that sailed over Johnson out of bounds along the far baseline.
Cronin said he had ordered Jaquez to throw a line-drive pass to Johnson with the hopes that Arizona State would foul the big man and send him to the free-throw line. But Jaquez implied his lob toward Johnson wasn’t the wrong play, just poorly executed.
“I over-sailed it,” Jaquez said. “I tried to get it high enough for him to go get it, but I overthrew it.”
Arizona’s McKale Center was a cauldron of obscene, extreme hostility directed at UCLA when Mac Etienne allegedly spit on students after the game.
If there’s a template for the Bruins to emerge from their first two-game losing streak of the season, it’s right in front of them. Their next game comes Tuesday against Stanford, a team UCLA throttled by 23 points last week at home despite making only 37.3% of its shots and 13.8% of their three-pointers.
It was the sort of dominance that might have lulled the Bruins into thinking they had arrived instead of just taking another step forward.
“I think as we went on a little hot streak before these last two games,” Jaquez said, “we kind of forget that teams are coming for us and we weren’t the aggressor this game and we’ve got to constantly be the aggressor.”
Go beyond the scoreboard
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