Sweeping on the road in the Pac-12 is always difficult, but it becomes even more difficult when you constantly make mistakes. That’s going to be one of the main stories after the UCLA Bruins blew an 11-point second half lead and lost to the Washington State Cougars on Saturday to go 1-1 on their first conference road trip under Mick Cronin.
The Bruins really did themselves no favors in this game, starting with 16 turnovers on offense. A lot of them were of the offensive foul variety, which helped inflate UCLA’s foul totals rather quickly and put Washington State in the bonus early and often. In fact, the Cougars got to the line 32 times in this one and hit 23 of them, as the Bruins committed 27 fouls in the game. That’s just not a recipe for success no matter how you slice it.
What also doesn’t help were some truly bizarre rotations from Cronin. Certainly foul trouble limited some players, such as Tyger Campbell who picked up two early fouls and ceded most of his minutes over to David Singleton. But Campbell was also a miserable -18 in this game, so that’s at least understandable. Less understandable was the lack of playing time for Jake Kyman, who followed up his explosion against Washington with a measly 14 minutes total in this one, with his eight points all coming in the second half to help keep UCLA in the game. Or consider Alex Olesinski getting 18 minutes, or Prince Ali with 28 minutes, the second-most on the team behind Singleton’s 29. I’m not exactly sure what the end goal of today’s rotations were; they certainly did not help UCLA win the game, and they certainly did not help to build for the future.
On a more micro level, this really comes down to two issues. The first is that UCLA’s defense, which was fantastic in the first half and limited the Cougs to 20.8%(!) from the field, let up in the second half as Washington State hit 55.6% of their shots. And that doesn’t take into account overtime, when the Cougs were even better and hit 62.5% of their shots. But that is at least understandable considering Washington State went down big and started playing looser, which combined with the 4th half of basketball on the road to create a sluggish UCLA team that was late on rotations and outfought for the ball.
The other big issue is that for the second game in a row an opponent came out of the half and utilized a zone defense, and the Bruins had no answer for it. It isn’t crazy to say at this point that UCLA lacks polished offensive players; Chris Smith is maybe the closest, which says a lot about where this team is at on that end. But the Bruins lack ball handlers that excel at penetrating a defense, or good offensive post players, or even a true go-to option on offense, so when teams turn up the defensive intensity, the Bruins just lack for an answer. The end of regulation highlighted this issue, as the play drawn up was a simple attack by Smith with a kick option to Kyman, but Smith was swallowed up by the Cougar defense and UCLA could not get a shot off. I don’t really know how you solve this problem this year beyond playing the younger guys more and seeing if they can figure it out, but it’s definitely something to monitor going forward.
It’s too bad the Bruins lost this game, because it squandered another fantastic game from Chris Smith on offense. Smith ended the game with 22 points on 8-14 shooting, while also tying for the team lead in rebounds. Had he not gotten into some foul trouble, he may have gone off for more. More impressively, it squandered what was perhaps Prince Ali’s best game in weeks. Ali had 11 points but more importantly had zero turnovers, which has been a problem in recent weeks. And while Singleton did not fill up the box score offensively, he provided solid minutes and a defense that was much more effective than what Campbell was giving. If Singleton continues to improve going forward, it’s going to be hard to keep him on the bench.
At the end of the day, the Bruins are probably going to kick themselves for letting this one slip away. This was a winnable game that the Bruins just did not finish, but should provide plenty of good experience for the younger players as to what it takes to complete a road sweep. Hopefully these are lessons that can take root and begin to flourish later this season into the next one.
Chris Smith led the Bruins with 22 points, and tied with Jules Bernard for the rebounding lead with seven. Tyger Campbell and Prince Ali tied for the team assist lead with two apiece. Isaac Bonton led the way for Washington State with 17 points.
- Player of the Game: Chris Smith - This was an easy one, as Smith was the only player that seemed keyed in from the get go and easily had the best performance for the Bruins. If Smith got any help from his teammates, UCLA very much could have pulled off the road sweep.
- Area of concern: Offensive Efficiency - As stated, the Bruins had 16 turnovers in this game. But those turnovers allowed the Cougars to stay in the game; the Cougs had 20 fast break points compared to just eight for the Bruins. UCLA got sloppy on offense (as evidenced by seven steals for Washington State), something they really cannot afford to do considering how much they struggle on offense as-is.
- Jaquez, interior struggles - I left it out above, but I’ll also mention that this was Jaime Jaquez’s worst game since he arrived on the scene, as he only had five points on 1-6 shooting and three turnovers. This performance is at least understandable; Jaquez is a true freshman on his first conference road trip, and is playing a ton of minutes as-is, so asking him to be fantastic every single night is probably a bit much. More distressing was how non-existent both Cody Riley and Jalen Hill were, as they combined for just 10 points on 4-8 shooting, including 2-6 from the FT line, and combined for six turnovers. UCLA’s interior is one of their strengths on defense, but if they are going to be a negative on offense like they were in this game, that just ends up as a wash.
The Bruins will take the week off before returning to the floor next Saturday, when they host Southern Cal. Tip-off is scheduled for 7:00 PM PT.