You can’t win them all? UCLA did just that for two dazzling months, finding a way even when it was not at its best.
The fun run finally ended Saturday. The fifth-ranked Bruins’ 58-52 loss to 11th-ranked Arizona at the McKale Center snapped a 14-game winning streak while shining an uncomfortably bright spotlight on some deficiencies.
This team lacks shooters. It’s also short on players who can create their own shot. Among those who played Saturday, only Jaime Jaquez Jr. and Tyger Campbell fit that description, and teams are increasingly finding ways to counteract Jaquez’s moves around the basket.
The fan overreaction to one loss for a team that remains in first place in the Pac-12 Conference standings was predictable. But it was also a reminder that some fixes have been needed for a while now, even before the Bruins (17-3 overall, 8-1 Pac-12) stumbled for the first time since late November.
Here are five ways UCLA could round into a more complete team as it approaches the midpoint of Pac-12 play Thursday against USC at Galen Center:
Move the ball
During the past few weeks, it has become excruciatingly obvious that offense — or lack thereof — could be the Bruins’ undoing in the NCAA tournament. A sluggish first half against Washington State was followed by an abomination of a second half against USC and 30 ineffective minutes against Colorado.
UCLA has gotten away from the zippy ball movement that led to so many easy baskets earlier in the season. Amari Bailey’s absence during the last seven games because of foot discomfort is a big part of this, no doubt. But whomever is on the court needs to keep making the extra pass in search of a better shot, even if it requires more screening and off-the-ball movement.
Too often, this team waits for something to happen rather than making it happen, going deep into the shot clock before forcing a low-percentage shot.
No. 5 UCLA couldn’t overcome cold shooting during a 58-52 loss at No. 11 Arizona on Saturday that stopped the Bruins’ 14-game winning streak.
Get Bailey back
Based on how freshman guard Amari Bailey looked in warmups Saturday, when he darted around with no hesitation on any of his cuts, he’s very close to returning. It could happen as soon as the rivalry game this week.
Bailey’s return will solve some of the offensive shortcomings by giving the team another elite passer as well as someone who can get to the rim against even the quickest defenders.
It will also allow David Singleton to resume his role as perhaps the nation’s best sixth man, giving the team considerably more punch off the bench.
Let the presses roll
The power of the press remains enormous. Did you watch the final two minutes Saturday?
That sequence during which the Bruins’ full-court press forced turnovers on four consecutive Arizona possessions was a thing of beauty. Do it more often.
UCLA has enough quick guards and bench depth to break out that kind of press during more than just pockets of games. It doesn’t need to do it for all 40 minutes, but more pressure would be doubly smart because it would also lead to easy transition baskets for the slumping offense.
Two fouls aren’t too many
Coach Mick Cronin has steadfastly held to one rule in the first half: Starters who pick up two fouls get a seat on the bench until halftime.
It has happened repeatedly with Adem Bona and Jaquez, leading to extended offensive lulls for a team that can’t afford them. Cronin doesn’t want his best players to risk fouling out, which is understandable, but the dropoff behind those two players is too steep to sit them for lengthy stretches.
When Jaquez was called for a charge against Arizona State that represented his second foul, sending him to the bench with 9:22 left in the first half, the Bruins led by three points. They were outscored by eight the rest of the half with Jaquez out, necessitating a second-half comeback.
It has been a similar story with Bona out given that his backups, Kenneth Nwuba and Mac Etienne, have added so little on offense that it feels as if the Bruins are a man down on that side of the ball whenever they’re in the game.
While Bona might need some safeguarding from fouling out, which he has done only once this season, Jaquez does not. He has picked up four fouls only once in 20 games, demonstrating that he knows how to play extended minutes without fouling.
Adem Bona didn’t start playing basketball until he was 13. The big man from Nigeria has become an important of a UCLA team that has won 13 games in a row.
Get Jaylen Clark back on track
UCLA’s offensive woes have been compounded by Jaylen Clark’s extended shooting slump.
Yes, he made the winning three-pointer against USC, but his shots have not been falling with their normal regularity. Over the last seven games, he’s making 32.9% of his shots and 27.3% of his three-pointers.
The one-handed floaters are not going in the way they did earlier in the season and his struggles from long range have been a nearly season-long issue. There’s no easy fix here, just more time spent working on his form and consistency.