With the return of football in the form of Spring Training, you’d be forgiven if you believed UCLA’s basketball season was over. Unfortunately, there’s still a week left in the regular season and the Bruins are about to head off on the dreaded Rocky Mountain road trip, with road games against the Colorado Buffaloes and Utah Utes to close out the season.
If you are someone who is still holding out hope that the UCLA Bruins can sneak into the NCAA Tournament, this is a pivotal week for the team. Currently, the Bruins sit in a three-way tie for 3rd place in the conference with Oregon State and Utah. Thanks to overall record, the Bruins sit in 4th place, which makes this final week important in securing a bye in the 1st round of the Pac-12 Tournament. UCLA controls their own destiny. A road sweep would clinch a first round bye and give the Bruins a fighting chance to win the conference tournament and secure the conference’s automatic bid.
The good news is that UCLA seems to be playing some of their best basketball of the season, a fact that was not lost on interim head coach Murry Bartow in his weekly press conference. As he mentions, the Bruins have won four of their last five games and they are mostly healthy, with the exception being Prince Ali, who will be traveling with the team, but is doubtful for the week. When discussing the progress in the last few weeks, Bartow states:
I think we’re a better team right now than we were five or six weeks ago. I think the guys feels good. I think they like how we’re playing, what we’re trying to do, and it’s obvious but when you win it’s gonna build confidence so right now our guys, if you’re just around our guys here today, they feel good, they look good, their confident.
Look, I’ll be blunt here and state that, yes, this team is playing better, but only by degrees and that the recent run has been fool’s gold in many respects. All four wins were in close games with the only road win in this stretch coming against conference cellar dweller UC Berkeley. There’s also the 24-point beating at the hands of Stanford sitting in the mix. And, I would be remiss if I did not point out that the current hot streak only came after UCLA got beaten by both Colorado and Utah at home.
Bartow also talked about the recent run of lower turnovers. Or, rather, Bartow talked about the lack of discussion in practice regarding turnovers.
We were harping a lot on it about three, four weeks ago and we kind of stopped harping on it, and it’s just gotten better. Guys have made less kind of silly mistakes and a lot of those turnovers were I think unforced turnovers and just kind of silly careless turnovers. We’re just playing better right now. We’re playing more confidently right now and so because of that I think the turnovers have dropped.
I do appreciate Bartow being unintentionally honest with this answer here. He basically admits that he and the coaching staff had no real affect on the turnover issues and that the fix was simply to play better. He later unintentionally admits that the turnover issue happened to go away when David Singleton entered the starting lineup.
One last quick quote from Bartow regarding how he started to get ready for the tough road trip.
Well, I talked to Steve....
So much for that first round bye.
Here’s Bartow’s complete interview, courtesy of UCLA Athletics:
Quick notes from the player interviews:
- Chris Smith credits an increased sense of urgency for the recent upswing in play. The logical question would be to ask where that sense of urgency was earlier in the season.
- Smith also points out that the corner three is a particular vulnerability in the defensive system in place. You’d think the coaching staff would also notice that and design something to correct that problem!
- Kris Wilkes seems pretty confident heading into the road trip. In particular, he seems to be embracing the underdog mentality that the Rocky Mountain road trip creates for visiting teams.
- Wilkes also mentioned that the defense sticks to zone because, statistically, they are not very good at man defense. So, that’s a thing.
- Defense was a big talking point in these interviews. So, I did find it interesting that Jaylen Hands focused his response on his deficiencies in the zone defense and where he needs to get better. Hands has really grown into a leader in recent weeks, and the recognition of his own mistakes first is another good sign of his growth.
Here are the player interviews, also courtesy of UCLA Athletics: