They get it. They finally get it.
UCLA basketball fans would be wise to mark Jan. 20, 2024, on their calendars just as many had circled Jan. 19, 2020, as the day things clicked for coach Mick Cronin’s first batch of Bruins who won 11 of their final 14 games.
It didn’t matter that this current group of Brubabes — seven freshmen among the eight newcomers — lost leads of 19 and 17 points in a crushing road loss to No. 12 Arizona on Saturday during the teams’ final matchup at the McKale Center as Pac-12 rivals.
This defeat might have been more encouraging than recent victories over Washington and Arizona State given that the Bruins played their best 30 minutes against the toughest opponent they’ve faced all season in the most hostile environment.
Yes, they lost those leads and Cronin lost his cool, appearing to yell an obscenity at the referees while earning a technical foul as part of a four-point sequence that allowed Arizona to tie the score on the way to its 77-71 victory.
But UCLA’s offense is no longer on its point-a-minute pace and the team is playing with a collective freedom and swagger that was missing through the season’s first 2½ months. Here are five takeaways from the loss to the Wildcats:
In the second halves alone, Sebastian Mack scored 16 points against Arizona, 11 points against Arizona State and 10 against Washington.
The freshman guard is no longer just driving fearlessly toward the basket, hoping to fling in a layup or draw a foul. He made two three-pointers in the second half against the Wildcats. He notched two assists in the second half against the Huskies.
While Mack certainly has a lot of strides to make on defense, his unselfish approach on offense has made him far more valuable than just being the team’s leading scorer with an average of 14.1 points per game.
"We just wanna win, and I’m fine with whatever,” Mack said of his role. “If you need scoring, [Saturday] I was there, but if you need assists and zero points I'm there. Just doing what it takes to win.”
Call him ‘Laser’
Lazar Stefanovic was brought in from Utah for his shooting, veteran savvy and leadership.
For more than two months, he had gone two for three, fulfilling every desired role except the shooting. But a recent uptick in accuracy has sparked the team’s turnaround, Stefanovic making two of three three-pointers against Washington and three of seven from long range against both Arizona State and Arizona.
Stefanovic made all three of his three-pointers in the first half against the Wildcats before experiencing a dropoff in the second half as the Bruins struggled with ball movement against stickier defense.
“They were more aggressive, and we kind of backed up instead of going at them,” Stefanovic said. “And we didn’t pass as much, and that’s why our shooting percentage went down.”
Jan Vide cooked in his six second-half minutes against the Wildcats, the freshman guard getting a three-pointer to drop and completing a three-point play after getting fouled on a jumper in the lane.
He was less successful on a fast-break drive blocked by Pelle Larsson when he probably should have passed to a teammate, but the offensive output in limited playing time was encouraging. Vide has also shown promise handling the ball as a possible part-time alternative to Dylan Andrews.
Hindered by an ankle injury for several weeks, Vide has averaged just 2.3 points in 6.5 minutes per game but appears on the brink of a far larger role.
Some major upside
At 8-11 overall and 3-5 in the Pac-12, there’s almost nothing UCLA can do the rest of the regular season to make the NCAA tournament barring an improbable 12-0 run.
That means the Bruins must do everything possible to prepare themselves for the Pac-12 tournament the way Cronin had readied his team for the NCAA tournament over the three previous seasons. Continue to find the winning players, perfect the rotations and load manage if necessary.
Only two games out of fourth place in the conference standings, the Bruins can still easily secure a top-four seed that comes with a bye into the Pac-12 tournament quarterfinals. That’s essential since only three teams — Colorado in 2012, Oregon in 2019 and Oregon State in 2021 — have won four games in four days as part of the current conference tournament format adopted in 2012.
But the Trojans have something going for them heading into the rivalry matchup Saturday evening at the Galen Center: They have gone 4-0 against UCLA under Cronin on their home court.
It’s the only Pac-12 venue in which Cronin has not won. This would be an opportune time to reverse those fortunes if the Bruins want to build upon their mid-season momentum.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.