UCLA’s loss to Arizona fuels expectations of a Bruins roster overhaul

By | March 8, 2024

Arizona's Keshad Johnson (16) dribbles under pressure from UCLA guard Dylan Andrews (2) and Lazar Stefanovic.

Arizona’s Keshad Johnson, center, dribbles under pressure from UCLA’s Dylan Andrews, left, and Lazar Stefanovic during the first half of the Bruins’ 88-65 loss Thursday at Pauley Pavilion. (Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)

In case Mick Cronin needs a reminder, the most important work he does this month will happen as soon as the season ends.

The transfer portal opens on March 18.

Developing UCLA’s current roster won’t be enough considering the talent discrepancy on display Thursday night against a hated nemesis. One team seemed capable of making a deep run in March, while the other team seemed to be in a hurry to close out the season.

The big question is how many of these battered Bruins will be back next November?

Read more: New UCLA football coach DeShaun Foster’s first contract is a steal

They barely put up a fight against No. 5 Arizona in the final game between the teams at Pauley Pavilion as Pac-12 rivals, with UCLA scrambling their way to an 88-65 loss that was an undignified final chapter in the storied series.

“We didn’t play well,” Bruins guard Lazar Stefanovic, who scored all 20 of his points in the second half, said in an understatement. “Didn’t communicate, didn’t execute the things we said we were going to do in the locker room, things we talked about. Their team is going to benefit from that, and you can’t allow mistakes like that against them. We didn’t play well enough, and that’s the main thing.”

The dreaded “U of A!” chants from Wildcats fans broke out in the final minute before halftime, with the Bruins (14-16 overall, 9-10 Pac-12) already trailing by 17 points en route to their fifth consecutive loss. Arizona (24-6, 15-4) captured the conference regular-season title and remained in the running for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

The outlook is much bleaker for UCLA. The Bruins will need to beat Arizona State on Saturday and win at least two games in the Pac-12 Tournament to avoid finishing with their first losing record since the 2015-16 season.

Given the way they’ve played the last three weeks, you shouldn’t count on that.

UCLA guard Sebastian Mack, right, appears to pass the ball.UCLA guard Sebastian Mack, right, appears to pass the ball.

UCLA guard Sebastian Mack, right, looks to pass in front of Arizona guard Caleb Love during the first half Thursday. (Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)

After compensating for a sloppy offense with elite rebounding and just a smattering of turnovers during a stretch in which it won eight of nine games, UCLA has been a mess across the board since dropping its home heartbreaker to Utah on Feb. 18 traps.

Bruins point guard Dylan Andrews (18 points against the Wildcats) has looked like an All-Pac-12 player in recent weeks and center Adem Bona (10 points, five rebounds) has provided some highlights, including his drive around Oumar Ballo Arizona for a vicious two-handed dunk in the opening minutes of the game. It hasn’t been nearly enough.

Ready or not, Bona could be headed to the NBA in June. Cronin compared Bona to former Cincinnati star Kenyon Martin, who went on to become the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft, while noting the latter player stayed in college for four years.

“He still has a lot to learn,” Cronin said of Bona, “but he has an incredible attitude and explosion, but he needs to learn how to play smarter. We try to play him in attack; until this year he was never an offensive player. It’s a growth spurt for him, he’s trying, I just don’t have enough help for him right now.

Andrews is expected back, but it seems clear that UCLA could use an impact post player and a pair of sharp-shooting wings through the transfer portal.

If Bona were to leave, the Bruins would have at least two available scholarships. Others could leave due to a lack of playing time or the likelihood of a smaller role in incoming transfers.

One of the most fascinating things to follow is UCLA’s European freshmen. Berke Buyuktuncel, Aday Mara, Jan Vide and Ilane Fibleuil combined to score eight points – all from Vide – against the Wildcats, with Fibleuil never coming off the bench and Mara limited to two minutes.

All four players arrived to much fanfare but were largely disappointing, although Mara has shown some promise in attack in recent weeks.

“You just have to evaluate who you can build with and who will get better,” Cronin said. “But no, I mean, a lot of our freshmen didn’t play the way I hoped they would. … If you’re outclassed, it’s obvious.”

Freshman guard Sebastian Mack, the team’s leading scorer, will almost certainly be welcomed back. The same goes for freshman forward Brandon Williams, who Cronin regularly describes as the team’s strongest player.

But those who can’t play Cronin’s ferocious defense won’t get many minutes on a better team. The coach cited Mack, Vide, Williams, Buyuktuncel and sophomore guard Will McClendon as unable to hang with their man.

Read more: Mick Cronin says UCLA’s disappointing season is “100%” his fault

“Every time someone dribbles the ball, they get beat,” Cronin said. “Most teams have to do things to hurt you; all you have to do is drive past us.”

The Bruins likely won’t be competing for anything next season without an infusion of talent, given the way they were overwhelmed by Arizona while trailing by as many as 28 points.

Fans can get their popcorn out. The roster moving in the coming weeks will be more intriguing than the season that is about to mercifully end.

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This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

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