UCLA freshmen’s defense could boost Bruins vs. Gonzaga

A week before the season, Mick Cronin considered giving up nearly 90 points in a scrimmage against San Diego State and chuckled when a reporter inquired about his defense.

The reporter ignored the cue and then asked if this might be one of the best defensive teams the coach had put together at UCLA.

“Uh, no,” Cronin said. “Too many freshmen.”

As it turned out, he would take a few more.

Freshmen Adem Bona, Amari Bailey, Dylan Andrews and Will McClendon strengthened a veteran core by forming Cronin’s craziest defense in four seasons at the school. The Bruins rank #2 nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, up from 16th last season and 46th the season before when they reached the Final Four, according to basketball analyst Ken Pomeroy’s metrics.

UCLA’s defense has made it a fashionable choice to return to college basketball’s biggest stage, even with a few massive roadblocks in the way. The second-placed Bruins (31-5) are two-point favorites over third-placed Gonzaga (30-5) in a semifinal match of an NCAA tournament in the West Region at the T-Mobile Arena Thursday, largely because they only have 60, Dropping 2 points per game – sixth-best nationally – and keeping opponents to fewer than 70 points in 31 of 36 games.

The newcomers have played a big part in keeping their team stingy despite the loss of top defender Jaylen Clark. The Bruins briefly held first place defensively last week before falling down a place after a 68-63 win over Northwestern in the second round.

“There’s a whole bunch of other guys on this team who are capable of doing exactly the same thing,” Clark said Wednesday in his first comments to reporters since suffering a season-ending leg injury earlier this month. “and you saw Amari climb in a mighty path.”

Bailey has taken on the responsibility of guarding an opponent’s best winger. Bona evolved into a shot-blocking squad who was Pac-12 Rookie of the Year and a member of the Conference All-Defensive Team. Andrews could be the Bruins’ best defender on the ball. And McClendon added ruthlessness from the bench.

A related development: all four players are among the most athletic on the team.

“The better an athlete you are, the better chance you have of eradicating a mistake,” Cronin said. “So there are times when a guy is open, but Amari Bailey is such a great athlete that he deflects the pass or Adem Bona changes the shot. … Their athleticism sometimes replaces their inexperience and their tenacity.”

Early in the season, Clark was known for his relentlessness, and senior forward Jaime Jaquez Jr. had gained widespread recognition for his vivacity, which twice earned him the Hungry Dog Award, which goes to the player who makes the most deviations in a season .

But what about Bona and Bailey, two newcomers moving into the starting line-up, and Andrews and McClendon who would take vital minutes off the bench? How many mistakes would they make before mastering a detail-oriented defense?

UCLA's Adem Bona dives over Northwestern's Brooks Barnhizer.

UCLA’s Adem Bona dives into Northwestern’s Brooks Barnhizer in the first half of the second round of Saturday’s NCAA tournament in Sacramento.

(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Cronin reached out to his seniors ahead of the season and told them the team would win nothing unless they helped tutor the freshmen. That meant not only learning how to defend the pick and roll, but also moving on immediately after taking criticism at high volume.

“Sometimes I have to pull them aside and tell them, ‘He’s so after you because he knows you can and you know you can. Calm down and relax,” senior guard David Singleton said of his message to the newcomers. “Game after game, practice after practice, you see them following the directions I give them, so I think they’ve grown with that.”

It’s unclear if Bona will be part of the Bruins’ effort to stop Gonzaga’s Drew Timme after aggravating his sore left shoulder against Northwestern. Bona did not attend the brief portion of practice open to the media on Wednesday, playing a hacky sack with a basketball alongside Bailey and some team managers.

“I’m taking it every day and getting better every day,” Bona said. “We’ll see how I feel by matchday.”

It was difficult to get any meaningful takeaways from the open practice, as Singleton wore flip-flops and a few other players wore Crocs while making half-field shots. Clark rolled a scooter onto the pitch, his right leg propped up, before firing a shot from a courtside seat. Singleton didn’t appear to be hampered by the sprained ankle he suffered towards the end of the win over the Wildcats.

“Somehow we have to find a way to contain Drew Timme and not give up a lot of threes no matter who plays for us because we have a bunch of guys every day,” Cronin said. “If it doesn’t go our way, I’m not going to come here and say we lost because these two guys didn’t play or these three guys didn’t play. We will still play five against five. You have to be tough enough to find out if you want to win.”

Count freshmen as willing to do whatever it takes, when perhaps they shouldn’t even be considered freshmen anymore.

“When you have guys that are just ready and they’re going against veterans in practice every day, it gets a little bit easier when they get out there,” senior point guard Tyger Campbell said. “But it all has to do with effort and they also have to plug into the scouting report. Because it’s hard with young guards – they get tricked out the back door, they get beaten, there’s a lot of things you don’t expect.

“But the guys we have took this defensive job very seriously because they know that’s the only way we can win.”

https://www.latimes.com/sports/ucla/story/2023-03-22/ucla-gonzaga-basketball-sweet-16-preview-ncaa-tournament UCLA freshmen’s defense could boost Bruins vs. Gonzaga

Emma Bowman

Emma Bowman is a USTimesPost U.S. News Reporter based in London. His focus is on U.S. politics and the environment. He has covered climate change extensively, as well as healthcare and crime. Emma Bowman joined USTimesPost in 2023 from the Daily Express and previously worked for Chemist and Druggist and the Jewish Chronicle. He is a graduate of Cambridge University. Languages: English. You can get in touch with me by emailing emma@ustimespost.com.

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