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Twelve things that must go right for UCLA during March Madness to raise banner No. 12

UCLA head coach Mick Cronin
UCLA coach Mick Cronin directs against Arizona during the Pac-12 tournament final last week.
(Ringo H.W. Chiu / Associated Press)
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Winning in the Big Dance requires being able to move to every song that’s playing.

That’s a March mantra UCLA coach Mick Cronin likes to repeat. It originated with his 81-year-old father, Hep, a former high school basketball coach now known for his fist pumps during Bruins victories.

“It ain’t the tango every night,” Mick Cronin said. “You got to be able to win in different ways against different styles.”

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The Bruins’ relentless defense and ability to protect the ball like a newborn make them capable of beating any team this time of year. But there are more than a few missteps they must avoid to keep dancing through “One Shining Moment,” the season’s final song.

As No. 2 seed UCLA (29-5) prepares to open the NCAA tournament Thursday night at Golden 1 Center in Sacramento against No. 15 seed North Carolina Asheville (27-7), it hopes that this is just the start of a Big Dance marathon leading to the school’s first national championship since 1995.

Here are 12 things that must go right for the Bruins to raise banner No. 12:

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1. The stars can’t disappear at the same time

UCLA's Jaime Jaquez Jr. drives the ball against Arizona's Azuolas Tubelis.
(Chase Stevens / Associated Press)

There’s been one common theme in UCLA’s losses — Jaime Jaquez Jr. and Tyger Campbell have both shot poorly.

It happened again last weekend in the Pac-12 tournament championship game, the Bruins’ top two players combining to make just 10 of 32 shots (31.3%). The duo shot 37.8% against Illinois, 38.5% against Baylor, 45% in the loss to USC and 28.6% in the first loss to Arizona.

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Jaime Jaquez Jr. arrived at UCLA as a willowy prospect fighting for minutes. Four years later, he is a brawny veteran and the Pac-12 player of the year.

March 7, 2023

For UCLA to make a deep run, Jaquez and Campbell can’t both go cold at the same time. Cronin can help by giving them an extra minute or two of rest in the first half, avoiding tired legs that lead to missed shots in the final minutes.

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2. The closeout specials continue

UCLA coach Mick Cronin talks with guard Tyger Campbell.
Bruins coach Mick Cronin talks with guard Tyger Campbell during a game against Arizona State.
(Ringo H.W. Chiu / Associated Press)

The last few minutes of almost every game have been winning time for the Bruins.

That’s largely a function of their veteran savvy and fearlessness first unveiled on the way to the 2021 Final Four. UCLA’s defense tends to get better late in games, and the Bruins rarely commit bad turnovers in the final minutes.

Jaquez and Campbell also have made many clutch shots to help the Bruins persevere in tough situations.

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3. Amari Bailey sustains his scoring surge

UCLA's Amari Bailey goes up for a shot against Stanford's Brandon Angel.
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

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UCLA’s top freshman guard has averaged 18 points in the three games since Jaylen Clark was lost to a season-ending leg injury.

Bailey’s career-high 26 points carried the Bruins to a victory over Colorado in the Pac-12 tournament. He scored 19 points two days later against Arizona, not counting the vicious one-handed dunk that was taken off the board when he was called for a controversial offensive foul.

If Bailey can continue to be a reliable third scoring option, it will make UCLA incredibly hard to beat.

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4. Adem Bona avoids foul trouble

Adem Bona celebrates with the Bruins' student managers after a win over Colorado in January.
(Jan Kim Lim / UCLA Athletics)

Once the buoyant big man returns from the shoulder injury he sustained against Oregon last weekend, he must stay on the court as long as possible given the considerable drop-off among the players behind him in the rotation.

Bona hasn’t fouled out since Feb. 16, largely avoiding the ticky-tack fouls that led to lengthy stretches on the bench earlier in the season.

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Cronin said Bona’s soreness had subsided considerably in recent days, but it’s unknown whether he will be able to play in the tournament opener.

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.

Jan. 19, 2023

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5. David Singleton makes a couple of threes

UCLA guard David Singleton celebrates going to the free-throw line.
UCLA guard David Singleton celebrates going to the free-throw line after he was fouled against Norfolk State on Nov. 14.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

The Bruins must free their sharpshooter for more three-pointers given the need to replace Clark’s offensive production.

Singleton has made a team-leading 43.2% of his shots from long range, but he took only one three-pointer and went scoreless in the recent loss to Arizona. He’s going to need to be a larger factor for the Bruins to advance past the first couple of rounds.

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6. Give the press a chance

Mick Cronin walks past, from left, guard Will McClendon, guard Dylan Andrews, forward Kenneth Nwuba and forward Adem Bona.
Bruins coach Mick Cronin walks past, from left, Will McClendon, Dylan Andrews, Kenneth Nwuba and Adem Bona as they cheer on their teammates.
(Andy Nelson / Associated Press)

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Clark’s absence makes UCLA’s full-court press considerably less fearsome, but the Bruins essentially abandoned it in their final two Pac-12 tournament games after breaking it out briefly against Colorado.

Although it makes some sense to focus on half-court defense with Clark out, this team has enough long, athletic defenders to create havoc with its press, especially when Dylan Andrews and Will McClendon are on the court.

Cronin should use this weapon at least occasionally to see whether it can force turnovers that lead to easy baskets.

Jaylen Clark suffered an injury Saturday night during UCLA’s win over Arizona. The Bruins have freshmen who could step up in his absence.

March 7, 2023

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7. McClendon contributes on offense

UCLA guard Will McClendon sets up for a shot against a Stanford defender last month.
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

The freshman hailed as a 3-and-D dynamo has lived up to half his billing.

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McClendon’s defense has been plenty disruptive, but he has struggled mightily with his shooting, making two of 26 three-pointers (.077%).

Teams have started leaving him open and daring him to shoot. He’s going to need to make a few baskets for the Bruins to prevail in tight games.

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8. Get more from the backup bigs

UCLA forward Mac Etienne pulls in a rebound over Norfolk State guard Cahiem Brown.
Bruins forward Mac Etienne pulls in a rebound over Norfolk State guard Cahiem Brown on Nov. 14.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Bona’s uncertain status means that Kenneth Nwuba and Mac Etienne might continue to enjoy more prominent roles.

Nwuba started against Arizona last weekend and played some admirable defense before fouling out. Etienne grabbed seven rebounds before fouling out.

They combined for three points in 34 minutes. That’s not a winning formula because it forces the Bruins to play four-on-five on offense.

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9. Receive better fan support

Arizona guard Courtney Ramey, center, celebrates with teammates after their win over UCLA in the Pac-12 tournament final.
(Chase Stevens / Associated Press)

UCLA should have a decided home-court advantage in the first two rounds, but Bruins fans have been noticeably outnumbered during recent games in Las Vegas.

T-Mobile Arena was swathed in orange during a loss to Illinois in November. A similar scene unfolded last weekend when Arizona fans overtook the place.

UCLA will need considerable fan reinforcements to swing the decibel level in its favor, especially if it faces Gonzaga in the Sweet 16.

After UCLA’s loss to Baylor, Mick Cronin criticizes the Bruins’ play on defense and puts the onus on himself to find solutions for the team’s issues.

Nov. 20, 2022

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10. Avoid slow starts

ASU forward Warren Washington, right, shoots while defended by UCLA guard Jaime Jaquez Jr.
Arizona State’s Warren Washington shoots while defended by UCLA’s Jaime Jaquez Jr.
(Ringo H.W. Chiu / Associated Press)

In each of their final three regular-season games, the Bruins fell behind by double digits in the first half.

They came back to win each time, but that sort of thing is living dangerously. Big early deficits against better opponents could spell doom in the NCAA tournament.

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11. Maximize available talent

UCLA's Jamie Jaquez Jr. is greeted by Dylan Andrews after hitting a three-pointer against Arizona State in January.
(Darryl Webb / Associated Press)

Cronin might have contributed to his team’s Sweet 16 exit last season when he didn’t use his best defensive lineup against North Carolina.

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The coach started Cody Riley instead of Myles Johnson against Tar Heels big man Armando Bacot, who finished with 14 points and 15 rebounds, and gave Clark only five minutes off the bench when he could have been used far more extensively to pester Caleb Love, who poured in 30 points.

This year, Cronin’s biggest lineup challenges could be finding the right number of minutes for Andrews and McClendon to sustain defensive intensity and keep Jaquez and Campbell fresh late in games.

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12. Get a little lucky in Las Vegas

Gonzaga forward Drew Timme loses the ball to UCLA guard Jules Bernard.
Gonzaga forward Drew Timme loses the ball to UCLA guard Jules Bernard during a game Nov. 23, 2021, in Las Vegas.
(L.E. Baskow / Associated Press)

The Bruins keep crapping out on the Strip. Recent memories include a pair of Pac-12 tournament championship game losses to Arizona, not to mention back-to-back defeats against Illinois and Baylor.

There was also an embarrassing blowout against Gonzaga a little more than a year ago.

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If all goes well, UCLA expunges those sins against the Bulldogs next week.

The UCLA Bruins have been seeded second in the NCAA tournament’s West Region and will play North Carolina Asheville in the first round.

March 12, 2023

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