ASUDevils - Know Your Foe: UCLA
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Know Your Foe: UCLA

UCLA head coach Mick Cronin
UCLA head coach Mick Cronin ((AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez, File))

The 2020-21 UCLA team was picked in their Pac-12 media preseason poll to capture the league championship, and thus far has certainly looked the part. What can we expect from ASU’s upcoming opponent? Publisher Rick Kimbrel shares his perspective.

DevilsDigest: At a 7-2 mark, with two losses to two teams in San Diego State and Ohio State that were in the top 25 a tone point or another this season. What's your impression of the Bruins so far, and are you surprised or disappointed with their level of play?

Rick Kimbrel: “Neither. San Diego State is a very good basketball team, and they played a tremendous game, which was the first game of the season. A really strong defensive battle and very physical. And I don't think the Bruins were up to the task that day. Then they go into Ohio State, and they had them beat, and they just couldn't close. I really liked the way they were coached in the San Diego State game and Ohio State game as well. The Bruins faced a strong defensive SDSU team and just didn't make the plays that were required for victory against Ohio State, which was disappointing because they had played so well most of the game. And if you're gonna lose, it's better to lose in November and early December than it is if you make it to March.

“And since then, of course, they're riding on a 13-game winning streak at Pauley Pavilion. So, they're becoming really tough out at home. So now we're coming up to this big road trip is going to be with Chris Smith, who is out for the season. So, we’ll see how they play without him.”

DevilsDigest: Let’s talk about the season-ending injury to Chris Smith. How do you see this affecting UCLA moving forward?

RK: “Chris Smith came out of the box slow to start the season, but (head coach) Mick Cronin said there were reasons for that. But Smith did score 28 points in that tough win over Pepperdine. He played his best half of basketball, hurt himself, and nobody really knew he was hurt. And he played the second half, even though he was horrible, not quite as quick. But he gutted it out. And then he just collapsed late in the game, and they had to walk him off, and we find out he tore his ACL.

“There's no superstar yet on this team, but they're just a really complete basketball team. They're going to probably try to work in Jaylen Clark (to replace Smith), who's nails-on defender as well. Eugene Clark was a highly recruited guy who is a really strong offensive player, but, you know, to play for Mike Cronin, you got to play defense. And that was the reason why Clark went he went to another high school as a senior and became a better defender. You’ll see UCLA trying to get Jake Kyman on track. He hasn't been able to get in practice as of yet. But when he does, I mean, he's a deadly shooter as well.

“It's a good, solid, hard-nosed, high effort basketball team, and it's good to see because the Pac-12 has a reputation of being soft, which I don't know if that's true or not. But once the word gets out, it's hard to shake off. Players said that they're going to dedicate this season to Chris Smith. I know they are going to put in the effort because they have a great coaching staff. Mick Cronin, for my money, is definitely one of the best coaches in college basketball, and the Bruins got really lucky getting him. He wanted the job all along; they could have had him earlier and strung it out if you remember that crazy coaching search.

“You're going to see a team that's going to come out and play intense basketball from the opening tip to the last whistle blow in the game. And they're gonna make up the 12 points he's (Smith) was averaging and the 6.4 rebounds. It’s going to replacing (the then) leading scorer, the second leading rebounder, and the third leading shot blocker. That’s a lot of production to replace, and when I asked Cronin about that, he said that they're just gonna have to find a way to do it, and that was his job to do it, and they're going to the next man up, that's all you have to do.

“It's only been one game without him, so you don't really know how it's really gonna affect the team yet. In games against Pepperdine and Utah, when the team had a slump, and he would make a play that would get the whole team fired up. And there's going to be that time we're UCLA will need that. And somebody's going to have to step up. Everybody stepped up against Colorado (the first game without Smith), because they were emotional about it. But how long can they sustain that type of emotion? And that's going to be the question and when there will come a time where they'll go, ‘dang if we had Chris, we would win this game.’ They're gonna have to figure it out. Right now, this is the second game without him, and there's not really a lot to go on.”

DevilsDigest: UCLA is scoring 75 points a game, giving up only 67, which for a Cronin team is the norm, not the exception. How do you view the identity of the Bruins on offense and defense?

RK: “I think they can still be improved. Johnny Juzang, for example, you can tell he can really shoot the ball. But he hasn't really hit his stride, yet he's still averaging in double figures. The most improved player last year was Chris Smith, but Jules Barnard might be in that conversation this year. He already was a tremendous defender. Now, he's playing some point, playing the 2 some. He's getting offensive rebounds. But defensively, they still have some lapses, and that's what caused them to lose to Ohio State and struggle against Utah. When UCLA wins games, it’s all about the defensive intensity. When they play defense like they're capable, they're tough to beat because you can’t get an easy shot. They forced two or three shot-clock violations in the last game.

“Mick Cronin is a master coach when it comes to defense, and the offense this year is much better. Tyger Campbell, at the point, runs the team very well. But a lot of folks don’t know about him because he's not a flashy guy. But the offense runs much better when he's on the floor, and recently I believe he had the best assistant to turnover ratio in the conference. I'm not sure if that's still true now, but he's outstanding. Jamie Jaquez plays hard on both ends of the floor. Cody Riley is a load inside. Jalen Hill comes off the bench right now, and he's one of the most athletic big men, I think, in the conference. He has a real good opportunity to make a living playing in the NBA. He very athletic, a great defender, and a shot blocker. The team has tremendous chemistry. When they pick n’ roll, that's something to watch.”

DevilsDigest: What kind of challenges do you think ASU ca present on Thursday night?

RK: “Arizona State is tough because it can spread the floor and shoot them all over the place. It could be it can be a very challenging task for UCLA. I'm really looking forward to the ASU game, even though I know they had some tough losses. There is a reason why the Sun Devils were picked to finish second in the conference this year. Winning on the road in the Pac-12 has become really, really tough. If you can get a split, then that's pretty darn good, especially if you get split in the desert with two very good basketball teams this season. Arizona State hasn't played for a very long time, and they can have a lot of rust to knock off, just like we talked about in football when they played each other.”

DevilsDigest: “how do you see this game on Thursday unfolding?

RK: “Well, you still got to defend the three, and you got to find a way to stop ASU’s outside shooting. Cronin talked about Marcus Bagley in his press conference and finding a way to stop him. And then you always have Remy (Martin). In my opinion, the team that will defend the best is the one that is going to win.

“It should be a good contest. Let’s face it; no one knows what to expect from ASU after being off for so long? This is what makes this a little crazy for me to even try to make a prediction. That being said, I think UCLA should win. Not having fans in the stands doesn’t make a true road game, and Bruins probably have the edge because they had played more recently. Arizona State is going to be tough out for them, and the game all depends on how Arizona State comes out. If they play like they never skipped a beat, it's going to be a good game, but this isn’t a true home game from them, and it’s going to be a little easier, I believe, this year for road teams because the fans aren't going to be there.”

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