The UCLA men’s basketball team is 6-9 overall and 1-3 in Pac-12 play heading into Thursday’s game at Utah, which is the first time the Bruins have been three games below .500 midway through the season since 2010, when the program finished 14-18 under Ben Howland.
The Bruins are 17-10 all-time against the Utes, including seven consecutive victories.
Here’s what you need to know about the Pac-12 matchup:
UCLA AT UTAH
When: 6 p.m. Saturday
Where: Jon M. Huntsman Center, Salt Lake City, Utah
TV/RADIO: ESPN 2/AM 570
Records: UCLA 6-9, 1-3, Utah 11-4, 2-2
UCLA’s latest result: Coach Mick Cronin apologized for not talking to reporters after UCLA’s 66-57 loss to Cal at Pauley Pavilion on Jan. 6. Cronin, who sent assistant coach Rod Palmer to speak in his place, later explained why he felt the need to continue talking to the team long after the final buzzer.
“They need me right now,” Cronin said before Tuesday’s practice at the Mo Ostin Basketball Center. “They needed to see and I apologize. I know you guys work hard and you know I try to always accommodate you and go out of my way when I can, but at that time, they needed to see that I was concerned about anything else but the situation.
“They know I’m trying to help them, but concern the other night was although we haven’t lost a game by double figures all year but I thought the other night was the first time we got outhustled, which is not acceptable. I take it personally. I take my job personally. It’s not healthy for me. It’s bad for the people that love me, but it’s just the reality and when I don’t, I need to hang it up.”
Against the Golden Bears, the Bruins were led by freshman guard Sebastian Mack with 20 points. Sophomore forward Adem Bona had 14 points and four steals. Sophomore guard Dylan Andrews added 10 points.
However, UCLA could not overcome a 32-23 halftime deficit after the team’s slow start on offense in the first half. Kenneth Nwuba, the team’s only senior and a member of UCLA’s 2021 Final Four team, believes he knows what it is going to take to beat Utah.
“What it’s going to take to get a win is we have to put our heads down and go play basketball and take it to the next level,” Nwuba said. “Play better defense and play better offense. When we go with defense and play good defense, offense is going to come.”
Utah’s latest result: The Utes are coming off a 92-73 loss at Arizona on Jan. 6. Senior guard Gabe Madsen had a team-high 18 points, but Utah was outrebounded 42-24 and allowed Arizona to shoot 60.3% (38 of 63) from the field, including 55.6% (10 of 18) from 3-point range.
Matchup to watch: 7-foot-3 freshman center Aday Mara against Utah’s 7-foot senior center Branden Carlson and 7-foot-1 junior center Lawson Lovering. Mara is expected to receive more than the four minutes of playing time he did in UCLA’s loss to Cal. Mara’s size is what initially stands out. However, Mara’s potential scoring ability is more important for a team that has not scored more than 60 points in its past three games.
“The challenge for us has been can we play (Aday) and Adem (Bona) together, because Adem is our best player,” Cronin said. “Things Aday knows he’s gonna get better at is get stronger, become a better defender, but even with that when he gets his chance, this team desperately needs offensive production.”
UCLA trends to watch: The Bruins, who have seven freshmen and eight newcomers, have not lost a game by double digits this season and have allowed the fewest points per game in the Pac-12 at 62.2 points per game through 15 contests.
“I’m commending their effort,” Cronin said. “How many teams this young defend?”
With the defense working but the offense lacking recently, Cronin says his team needs effort and execution to win Pac-12 games.
“(Execution).That’s the issue,” Cronin shared. “It’s hard to become a good offensive team without somebody you can rely on that makes the game easy for his teammates, so even if Jaime Jaquez had a rough night, it was usually because the other team was paying a lot of attention to him, so therefore his teammates were open.
“When you watch a team play, I would contend that a great passer can make the game a lot easier for others, so that’s something we’re trying to work really hard on. We’re spending a lot of time on showing our guys, our guards especially. I would love to shoot more 3’s if we would pass it out to the open shooter, but our guards struggle with that so it’s an area of coaching. We don’t have a guy that’s natural at that. We just don’t and that’s my fault, but we don’t.”
Meanwhile, Cronin also referred to “a big gap” in the school’s lack of NIL opportunities for players as something that has hindered his team’s level of experience.
“Tyger (Campbell) wasn’t going to stay for the NIL money here so there was really no way around it,” Cronin said. “At some point, those guys were all going to be gone and it is what it is and you know how the portal is and what it’s really about. It’s not about guys saying they connected with the coach,” Cronin continued with a smile and a sly chuckle.