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UCLA Bruins Play Choppy Game, Beat Southern Utah 76-61

The Bruins relied on their strong defense to improve to 4-0.

NCAA Basketball: UNLV at UCLA Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Have you ever seen how boa constrictors eat their prey? I mean, I assume that you, the reader, has some passing understanding of the process, but to use non-sciency terms, the big giant snake wraps itself around its prey and slowly saps the life out of it.

Four games into the season, I’d consider it to be an accurate reflection of what the UCLA Bruins plan to do this year, as the Bruins ran out to an early lead and slowly sapped the life out of the Southern Utah Thunderbirds en route to a 76-61 victory.

It really was a defense-first performance. Let me list off some stats real fast:

10 blocks, 13 steals, 17 turnovers forced, 18 points off turnovers, 35.7% opp. FG%

That’s a ridiculously good performance, and a good indicator of how quickly the Bruins have changed to fit new head coach Mick Cronin’s vision for winning basketball. The defense has been aggressive when teams try to bring the ball up the court, and aggressive when teams try to drive down the lane. Cronin stated that one of his goals was “no free layups” but right now opposing teams are not getting free shots, period. The poor Thunderbirds, who aren’t a great outside shooting team but are full of slashers and love to score in the paint, just had no answer for UCLA’s defense, which right now feels pretty sustainable.

The good news is that the defense has been so good that it’s been able to paper over an inconsistent offense. UCLA shot a subpar 42.9% from the field, including 3-11 (27.3%) from deep, because they apparently wanted to make me look like a jerk after I proclaimed that the offensive woes were a thing of the past last week. But even that belies the fact that UCLA was at least aggressive on offense, forcing the issue at the point of attack and getting to the line a ridiculous 39 times. Yes, the Bruins only made 25 of those, but when your offense is struggling then every point counts. I still think the offense and shooting will improve, but this was not a great game from that standpoint.

Overall, this game felt like the blueprint for the Bruins going forward. The game itself lacked flow for a good amount of time, and was really choppy for a good amount of the game, but that suits UCLA just fine at the moment. Certainly the offense is going to need to improve as the competition ramps up, but the defense has come out of the gate so strong that it will allow the offense to grow on its own timeline, which is perfectly fine.

Chris Smith led the team with 20 points. Cody Riley and Jalen Hill tied for the team lead with eight rebounds, and Tyger Campbell led the team with five assists. John Knight III led the way for the Thunderbirds with 14 points.

3 Takeaways

  1. Player of the Game: Tyger Campbell? Probably? - Honestly you could make a case for any number of players in this game, and maybe that’s what is so fascinating about this team in the early going. The last few years have had clear alpha dogs for UCLA, while this year has had a more egalitarian approach, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. But it makes PotG a tough thing to figure out. I’m mostly going with Campbell because of how the offense looked while he was on the court, and how much struggle there was when he was off the court.
  2. Just Defend, Baby - Southern Utah shot 35.7% from the field. Really that’s all I should have to put here, but just in case scroll back up and look at those numbers again. It was just a very good performance from a very good defense that is starting to come into its own right at the beginning of the season. Steve Alford could never.
  3. Kudos to the Den - This game did not have a lot of stand-out moments, but I do want to shout out the Den for their clear persistence on the night. Late in the second half, Andre Adams committed his 5th foul, and the Den proceeded to begin their customary “left, right, left” chant. Except Adams tried to deny them their satisfaction, refusing to sit and even trying to fake out the students by pretending to sit a few times. Pac-12 Network even went to a split box to show Adams continuing to stand on the sideline while everyone sat around him. Credit to Adams for being an entertaining level of petty, and credit to the Den for never wavering in their chanting, and credit to everyone involved for providing some entertainment late in this game.

The Bruins will return to the court on Thursday, when they take on the Hofstra Pride. Tip-off is scheduled for 8:00 PM PT.

Go Bruins!