Remember those guys who gladly sprawled their bodies on the court over UCLA’s first handful of games, diving for loose balls and tipping passes until their fingers ached?
They were last seen the week before Thanksgiving, and coach Mick Cronin would like them to come back.
A quick reappearance would be timely for the Bruins (7-6), who open Pac-12 Conference play Thursday night at Alaska Airlines Arena against Washington (10-3).
UCLA has lost three consecutive games and is staggering on defense, but it wasn’t always so. The Bruins held their first four opponents to an average of 60.2 points per game, offsetting a clumsy offense while allowing the team to pile up wins.
“Our offense didn’t beat Long Beach State in our opener, our defense did, our rebounding did,” Cronin said. “That’s why we were winning, and we’ve got to find a way to get back to that as a coaching staff and as a team.”
The level of opponents largely has risen since UCLA started the season 4-0, but the Bruins’ defense has regressed against both good and not-so-good teams. They’ve been hurt by dribble penetration and an inability to close out on three-point shooters.
The Bruins have given up 71.2 points per game since their undefeated start and rank at or near the bottom of the Pac-12 in almost every defensive category. They are giving up 67.8 points per game overall (ninth), and opponents are shooting 42.5% (tied with Washington State for last place) and making 38.1% of three-pointers (last).
Tally it up and UCLA is left with an adjusted defensive ranking of No. 200, according to the metrics of basketball analyst Ken Pomeroy. If that figure held up, it would be the worst of Cronin’s career.
The second team Cronin coached while at Murray State had an adjusted defensive ranking of No. 193 before improving to No. 51 the next season. At Cincinnati, Cronin’s Bearcats struggled in that department early in his tenure, finishing Nos. 121, 70 and 108 during his first three seasons. By Cronin’s fourth season, the Bearcats had risen to No. 44, and by his fifth, they were No. 13. That was the start of nine consecutive appearances in the NCAA tournament that coincided with Cincinnati never finishing worse than No. 28 in adjusted defensive ranking.
“Hiring me and saying we’re going to play defense is one thing,” Cronin said of his move to UCLA, “being able to go out there and grind it out and get stops, possession by possession, it’s time-consuming. I didn’t build Cincinnati in one day.”
Cronin said his team had persevered through some tough practices over the last few days while trying to remember the Titans and the pain inflicted during a 77-74 loss to Cal State Fullerton. Redshirt sophomore forward Jalen Hill might have stumbled upon a new mantra while discussing the team’s attempt to recapture its early-season identity.
“Defense, always,” Hill said. “Defense is what gets it done. I mean, obviously, you have to put the ball in the basket, but without defense there is no point. Plus, defense can lead to offense.”
Cronin has continually pointed out that his players are trying to break old habits while making his identity their identity.
“It’s not going to be easy,” Cronin said. “We have got to find a way to get some defensive stops and give ourselves a chance to win games.”
Where: Alaska Airlines Arena, Seattle.
On the air: TV, FS1; radio, 1150.
Update: Washington is seeking a reliable No. 2 scoring option behind Isaiah Stewart, the fabulous freshman who is averaging 19.2 points, 8.8 rebounds and 1.6 blocks while shooting 61.1%. The defending Pac-12 regular-season champions are coming off a 75-71 loss to Houston in the Diamond Head Classic in which Huskies coach Mike Hopkins blended in a new man-to-man defense with his usual 2-3 zone.