January 22, 2021

DCTRS

Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

Unbeaten in Pac-12, UCLA can improve if it continues to grow

For all their success in Pac-12 Conference play, one nervous win following another, UCLA players will freely admit it: They’re an imperfect 5-0.

The Bruins foul excessively. They struggle to stay in front of dribblers who either too easily find their way into the paint or pass to open shooters. Top shooters Jake Kyman and Johnny Juzang have failed to make a third of their three-pointers. The team couldn’t even inbound the ball cleanly late in the game against Arizona on Saturday.

Somehow, all those problems have failed to leave a blemish on their record. The Bruins (9-2 overall, 5-0 Pac-12) are off to their best start in conference play since they also won their first five games in the 2012-13 season. That also happened to be the last time UCLA won the Pac-12 regular-season title.

These Bruins could be on the verge of a further foray into the history books. Should UCLA beat Washington State on Thursday afternoon at Pauley Pavilion in a rare weekday matinee, the Bruins would start 6-0 for the first time since they won their first seven conference games during the 1993-94 season.

They know that to get there will require a significant cleanup effort.

“I definitely feel like we can play better,” said redshirt junior forward Cody Riley, whose late-game success in offensive rebounding and making free throws helped UCLA prevail for the fourth consecutive time on Arizona’s home court. “Offensively, we played really well in the first half but as far as defensively we had a few slipups and we didn’t play our best game, but we still came out with the win and that’s the only thing that matters. We’re going to go back to the drawing boards back at school in Westwood and continue to progress and trend in the right direction.”

Bruins coach Mick Cronin pointed out that his team is still young, with no seniors now that guard Chris Smith has been lost for the season because of a knee injury. Point guard Tyger Campbell and guard Jaime Jaquez Jr. are sophomores and Cronin equated Juzang, another sophomore, to a freshman because he played so little last season at Kentucky before transferring.

Freshman guard Jaylen Clark and redshirt sophomore Kenneth Nwuba, who infused needed toughness into the defense against the Wildcats, are still feeling their way through their first college minutes.

“We’ve got a lot of guys on the improve,” Cronin said. “Johnny’s still getting comfortable and we’ve got different guys that are making plays for us.”

Ten Bruins scored against Arizona and the team showed some veteran savvy late in the game, answering every Wildcats run, often at the free-throw line. UCLA made 27 of 32 free throws for the game, making Cronin seem prophetic because he figured his team’s success there would be pivotal.

Yet the Bruins nearly stumbled over themselves in the final minutes. Leading by six points with a little more than two minutes to play, junior guard Jules Bernard tried to throw an inbounds pass over the long arms of 7-foot-1 center Christian Koloko.

Wrong move. A leaping Koloko stole the pass and Bernard compounded his mistake by fouling Koloko from behind on a dunk only 11 seconds later. Cronin shouldered the blame for the inbounds pass, saying he didn’t clearly communicate the need to throw a bounce pass.

The Bruins persevered despite two more mistakes, Jaquez throwing another inbounds pass that was stolen and Juzang fouling a three-point shooter with only six seconds left. Jaquez compensated for his blunder by generating a steal of his own and his teammates made enough free throws in the final moments.

“I think it just shows the guys on this team, everybody’s willing to do what it takes to win and everybody really does want to win, it’s about the team,” Juzang said. “Obviously, we have mistakes and slipups and there’s things we have to get better at and focus more, but everybody really does want to win on this team and I think that shows.”