October 23, 2021

DCTRS

Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

UCLA men’s basketball winning big without elite talent

The last time UCLA won its first eight conference games, the roster was loaded with future NBA talent. All five starters from the 1982-83 team would go on to play in the NBA, small forward Kenny Fields getting drafted in the first round by the Milwaukee Bucks and point guard Rod Foster selected in the second round by the Phoenix Suns.

The current Bruins may feature a future NBA player or two, but aren’t exactly attracting a swarm of scouts.

Their best player, Chris Smith, was not assured of being drafted even before he was lost for the season with a torn knee ligament. Pint-sized point guard Tyger Campbell wows with his decisions, not his athleticism. Jaime Jaquez Jr. may be as tough as any college player but isn’t overly skilled.

UCLA coach Mick Cronin has talked about eventually stocking his team with NBA lottery picks, but in the meantime the Bruins more closely resemble a mid-major roster that thrives on resilience, savvy and togetherness. Players’ affection for one another can be seen in spontaneous pregame huddles that usually break with widespread laughter and smiles.

Just grin, baby, could be UCLA’s motto on the way to the best start for the Bruins (12-2 overall, 8-0 Pac-12) in conference play since that more pedigreed bunch won its first nine games 38 years ago in what was the Pac-10. (That team, by the way, lost to Utah in the second round of the NCAA tournament.)

These Bruins have won seven consecutive games and are a staggering 15-1 over their last 16 conference games going back to last February. Cronin knows that doesn’t assure more success Saturday afternoon when the No. 24 Bruins face Stanford (8-5, 4-3) at Kaiser Permanente Arena.

“The team with the best record is not guaranteed victory,” Cronin said Thursday after the Bruins proved his point, slogging their way to another triumph against a lower-tier Pac-12 opponent with a 61-57 victory over California. “It is hard to win. So I give my guys a lot of credit, and it’s hard to keep winning, I promise you. All you got to do is think back to how hard it was for us to win early last year.”

This year, UCLA keeps finding a way to prevail, winning whether its shots aren’t falling with regularity or its defense falters for sustained stretches. Both happened Thursday before Cody Riley and Jules Bernard made big baskets and the Bruins held Cal to only 10 points over the final 10 minutes, with Jalen Hill and Jaylen Clark assisting the late lockdown efforts.

“Jalen is trying to get back to being our best defender,” Cronin said. “He’s trying to get back to being an anchor for us, trying to be an elite defender in college basketball. That’s what’s going to give him a chance at playing after college.”

These might be the rare Bruins in no hurry to get to the NBA, savoring everything their college experience has to offer.

TODAY

AT STANFORD

When: 2 p.m.

Where: Kaiser Permanente Arena, Santa Cruz

On the air: TV: Channel 11; Radio: 570

Update: Stanford has won all four games at its temporary home roughly 50 miles from campus, forced out of Maples Pavilion because of local health restrictions related to the pandemic. The Cardinal is a stylistic inverse of the Bruins, excellent on defense and slightly above average on offense. Stanford should be fully rested considering it did not play USC on Thursday after the game was canceled because of what turned out to be a false positive COVID-19 test result involving a Trojans player. But the Cardinal could be shorthanded. Guard Bryce Wills and forward Spencer Jones did not play during Stanford’s most recent game against Colorado because of injuries, and Stadium reported that guard Daejon Davis and forward Ziaire Williams would have missed the USC game for unspecified reasons, leaving their status for the game against the Bruins in doubt.