I want to talk about a tweet I sent out in the second half, because it pretty clearly establishes my thoughts on where the UCLA Bruins men’s basketball team is at this point of the season:
Sign of how good of a job Cronin has done: Utah has been making a push here and yet I’ve felt calm the entire time.— Bruins Nation (@BruinNation) February 21, 2020
At the time, the Utah Utes had gone on a bit of a scoring spurt to cut the UCLA lead to 12. The Utes would cut the lead down to seven with about 1:44 left in the game. And yet despite all that, and despite being on the road, in an environment where Utah had only lost one game all season, it never felt like UCLA was going to let this game get away. And sure enough, that’s what happened, as the Bruins would make six straight free throws while also locking down the Utes defensively to salt the game away and win 69-58.
It is honestly a bit of a marvel just how big of a turnaround UCLA has been on in Pac-12 play. If you asked most UCLA fans where they thought the team would end up at the end of the non-conference schedule, when the Bruins lost to middle-of-road Big West team Cal State Fullerton at home, and I think most would say near the basement of the conference. Even as recently as February 1, only about 56% of responding Bruin fans felt confident in the direction of the team. And yet as the weeks have gone by, the Bruins have come to fully embody the ideals that head coach Mick Cronin has tried to instill in them, and it has translated into wins on the basketball court.
The Bruins are getting it done with defense. Consider the first half of this game; UCLA held the Utes to only 21 points on 38.9% shooting while forcing nine turnovers. The Utes were held without a three point make until the 7:25 mark of the second half! That’s insane, and a credit to a swarming Bruin defense that did a much better job of defending the three while also making Utah work for every inside point they got. You could nitpick and point out that Utah isn’t a great offensive team, but the Utes had been averaging about 76.7 points per game at home heading into this one (68.7 in conference play), but the Bruins now join San Diego State as the only team to hold the Utes under 60 points at home. And the Bruins kept the Utes off the glass, holding a 33-24 rebounding advantage.
And on offense, the Bruins are definitely getting more comfortable with the offense. The Bruins shot 50% from the field, and crucially did not need a monster performance from Chris Smith to secure the road win. In fact, only two players scored in double figures for the Bruins, with one being the increasingly-hot Tyger Campbell. The other was Jules Bernard, who came out of the gate with his head on fire and finished with a team-high 16 points on a very efficient 6-9 (nice) from the field. Really the only big criticism of the offense was perhaps trying to feed Cody Riley too much once it became clear he wasn’t having a great night, as he finished 3-11 from the field, but even he was able to do a good job of drawing fouls inside.
Of course, this is still UCLA basketball, so things couldn’t be easy down the stretch. Again, the Utes went on a run late to cut into the Bruin lead, and they were able to do so with a full-court press that confounded UCLA repeatedly. At this point, it’s safe to say the press break is an Achilles heel of this team, but most teams are not going to employ it from the start just due to depth issues (it says a lot that only one team has tried that, and it led Oregon to blow out the Bruins early). Again, this is probably an issue that gets fixed next year when Daishan Nix is suiting up, but you’d like to see the guys who will be big contributors next year figure this part out now.
In any case, the Bruins are suddenly sitting at 16-11, only a game out of first place. And look at that — next up they play the first place Colorado Buffaloes, a team they’ve already beaten at home this year. UCLA only swept the mountain road trip once during Steve Alford’s tenure, and suddenly Mick Cronin has a shot at doing so in his first year at the helm. That’s not nothing.
Jules Bernard led the Bruins with 16 points. Jalen Hill led the team with 8 rebounds, while Tyger Campbell led the team with 4 assists. Alfonso Plummer led the Utes with 16 points.
- Player of the Game: Jules Bernard - It has to be Jules, right? Besides leading the team in scoring, he continued his run of fantastic defensive play, and has really morphed into a dependable rotation player for Mick Cronin. I will fully admit that I was skeptical of Bernard’s ability to adjust and considered him a potential transfer after this season, but he absolutely looks to have bought in to Cronin’s vision, and is reaping the rewards.
- Area of concern: Press Break - Utah was able to get back into this game thanks to a bad UCLA press break. The Bruins looked incredibly unsure of what to do, with even Campbell looking lost at times, doing the bad thing of dribbling backwards instead of upcourt. Throw in some careless passes, and it was a sloppy final few minutes that reawoke the sleepy Utah faithful down the stretch.
- Utah fans remain the most aggrieved in the conference - Let’s end by seeing if we can anger some Utes fans here, but boy the Utah fans in attendance were not having any of what they were watching. I thought the Pac-12 refs had a decent game by their standards, but if you were to believe the paying refs in the stands, the Utes did nothing wrong all game and are probably victims of an anti-Utah conference conspiracy.
UCLA next plays on Saturday with a nationally-televised matchup with Colorado. Tip-off is scheduled for 1 pm PT.