A week into the season, Mick Cronin contemplated giving up nearly 90 points in a fight against San Diego State and chuckled when a reporter asked him about his defense.
Inadvertently, the reporter kept asking if this could be one of the best defensive teams the coach had assembled at UCLA.
“Uh, no,” Cronin said. “Too many freshmen.”
The way things turned out, it would take a few more.
Freshmen Adem Bona, Amari Bailey, Dylan Andrews and Will McClendon have bolstered a veteran core by putting together Cronin’s most wicked defense in four seasons at the school. The Bruins rank second nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, according to metrics by basketball analyst Ken Pomeroy, compared to 16th last season and 46th the season before when they reached the Final Four.
UCLA’s defense has made him a hot choice for returning to college basketball’s biggest stage, even with some massive bumps in the way. The second-seeded Bruins (31-5) are two-point favorites over third-seeded Gonzaga (30-5) Thursday in a West Region semifinal of the NCAA tournament at T-Mobile Arena, largely because they’re giving up just 60.2 points per game, sixth-best nationally, while holding opponents to fewer than 70 points in 31 of 36 games.
Freshmen have played a big part in keeping their team stingy despite the loss of top defender Jaylen Clark, the Bruins briefly held the No. 1 defensive spot last week before dropping a spot after a 68-63 win over Northwestern in the second round.
“There are a lot of other guys on this team capable of doing the exact same thing,” Clark said Wednesday in his first remarks to reporters since suffering a season-ending leg injury earlier this month, “and they’ve seen Amari stepping up in a huge way.”
Bailey has taken it upon himself to protect the best player on an opponent’s perimeter. Bona became a shot-blocking force who was the Pac-12 Freshman of the Year and a member of the conference defensive team. Andrews might be the Bruins’ best defender on the ball. And McClendon has added bravado off the bench.
A related development: All four players are among the most athletic on the team.
“The better athletes you have, the better chance you have to erase a mistake,” Cronin said. “So there are times where there might be an open guy, but Amari Bailey is a great athlete who deflects the pass, or Adem Bona changes the shot. … His athleticism supersedes his inexperience at times and toughness.”
Entering the season, Clark was known for his relentlessness, and senior forward Jaime Jaquez Jr. had won widespread praise for combativeness that earned him a two-time Hungry Dog Award given to the player who racks up the most deflections in a season.
But what about Bona and Bailey, two newcomers to the starting lineup, and Andrews and McClendon, who would log significant minutes off the bench? How many mistakes would they make before mastering a detail-oriented defense?
Addressing his seniors before the season, Cronin told them that the team would gain nothing if they did not help teach the freshmen. That meant not only learning how to defend the pick and roll, but also moving on immediately after absorbing high-volume criticism.
“Sometimes I have to take them aside and say, ‘He’s with you like this because he knows you can do it and you know you can do it. Settle down and relax,’” senior guard David Singleton said of his message to the freshmen. “Game by game, practice after practice, you see them apply the instructions I give them, so I think they’ve grown with that.”
It’s unclear if Bona will be a part of the Bruins’ efforts to stop Gonzaga’s Drew Timme after aggravating his sore left shoulder against Northwestern. Bona did not participate in the brief portion of practice open to the media on Wednesday, other than playing hacky sack with a basketball alongside Bailey and some team managers.
“I’ve been taking it day by day, getting better every day,” Bona said. “For game day, let’s see how I feel.”
It was difficult to draw any meaningful conclusions from open practice given that Singleton wore flip-flops and a few other Crocs players while laying up half-court shots. Clark rolled a scooter onto the court, his right leg braced, before firing a shot from a courtside seat. Singleton appeared unaffected by the sprained ankle he suffered late in a win over the Wildcats.
“Somehow we’ve got to find a way to contain Drew Timme and not give up a lot of 3s no matter who plays for us because we have some guys every day,” Cronin said. “If it doesn’t go our way, I’m not going to come in here and say we lost because these two guys weren’t playing or these three guys weren’t playing. We’re still going to get to play five on five. You have to be strong enough to figure it out if you want to win.”
Count on freshmen willing to do whatever it takes, even though maybe they shouldn’t be considered freshmen anymore.
“When you’ve got guys that are ready and they’re facing the veterans every day in practice, it’s a little bit easier when they come out,” said senior point guard Tyger Campbell. “But all of that has to do with effort and they also look at the scouting report. Because with young guards it is difficult: they will be deceived, they will be beaten, there will be many things that you do not expect.
“But the guys that we have, they’ve taken this defensive job very seriously because they know that’s the only way we’re going to win.”