UCLA’s stingy freshman defense could give the Bruins a boost against Gonzaga

A week before the season, Mick Cronin considered giving up nearly 90 points against San Diego State and laughed when a reporter asked him about his defense.

Without getting emotional, the reporter asked if this could be one of the best defensive teams the coach has assembled at UCLA.

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

That being the case, he would take others.

Freshmen Adem Bona, Amari Bailey, Dylan Andrews and Will McClendon have bolstered a veteran core forming Cronin’s most offensive defense in four seasons at the school. The Bruins rank No. 2 nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, according to basketball analyst Ken Pomeroy, up from 16th last season and 46th the season before they reached the Final Four.

UCLA’s defense has made it a hot option despite some major obstacles on its way back to college basketball’s biggest stage. The second-seeded Bruins (31-5) are two-point favorites against third-seeded Gonzaga (30-5) in an NCAA tournament West Region semifinal Thursday at T-Mobile Arena, largely because they’re allowing just 60.2 points. game — sixth best nationally — by holding opponents to fewer than 70 points in 31 of 36 games.

The underclassmen have played a big part in keeping their team stingy, and despite losing senior guard Jaylen Clark, the Bruins took the top spot on defense last week after beating Northwestern 68-63 in the second round.

“There’s a bunch of other guys on this team capable of doing the same thing,” Clarke told reporters Wednesday after suffering a season-ending leg injury earlier this month, “and you’ve seen Amari step up in a tremendous way.”

Bailey has taken on the responsibility of guarding the top player on the opponent’s perimeter. Bona became a shot-blocking force who was named the Pac-12 Freshman of the Year and a member of the conference’s all-defensive team. Andrews may be the Bruins’ best defender. And McClendon has added to the gap off the bench.

Related development: All four players are among the most athletic on the team.

“The better athletes you are, the better chance you have of erasing a mistake,” Cronin said. “So there are times where a guy might be open, but Amari Bailey is such a great athlete that he deflects the pass, or Adem Bona changes the shot. … Their athleticism sometimes makes up for their inexperience and toughness.”

Coming into the season, Clark was known for his unstoppability, and Jaime Jaquez Jr. The senior forward gained much notoriety as a two-time winner of the Hungry Dog Award, which is given to the player with the most deflections in a season.

But what about Bona and Bailey, two newcomers to the starting lineup, and Andrews and McClendon, who would get significant minutes off the bench? How many mistakes would they make before mastering the detail-oriented defense?

UCLA’s Adem Bona cuts to Northwestern’s Brooks Barnhizer during the first half of the second round of the NCAA tournament in Sacramento on Saturday.

(Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times)

Addressing his seniors before the season, Cronin told them the team won’t win anything if they don’t help teach the freshmen. This meant not only learning how to defend the pick and roll, but also moving on immediately after receiving a high volume of criticism.

“Sometimes I have to take them aside and say, ‘He’s on top of you because he knows you can do it and you know you can do it. Take it easy and relax,’ ” senior guard David Singleton said of the message to the freshmen. “Game by game, practice by practice, you see them apply the instructions I tell 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 he aggravated a sore left shoulder at Northwestern. Bona did not participate in Wednesday’s short practice open to the media, other than playing hacky sack with a basketball with Bailey and some team managers.

“I’ve taken it day by day, getting better every day,” Bona said. “We’ll see how I feel on game day.”

It was difficult to get any meaningful takeaways from open practice, as Singleton wore flip-flops and Crocs while other players took half-court shots. Clark rolled a scooter onto the court, with his right leg raised, before unleashing a shot from a courtside seat. Singleton was not bothered by a sprained ankle suffered near the end of the win over the Wildcats.

“We’ve got to find a way to somehow contain Drew Timme and not give up a lot of threes no matter what he plays for us because we have some guys day in and day out,” Cronin said. “If it’s not our way, I’m not going to come in here and say we lost because these two guys didn’t play or because these three guys didn’t play. We’ll still get to play five-on-five. You have to be tough enough to figure it out if you want to win.’

Tell freshmen that they are willing to do whatever it takes, even though they may not be considered freshmen anymore.

“When you have guys that are ready and going against veterans every day in practice, it makes it a little bit easier when they go out there,” Tyger Campbell said. “But that also has to do with effort and blocking in the scouting report. Because the guard is difficult with young people: they will take the back door, they will beat you, there will be many things that you do not expect.

“But the guys we have have taken this defensive job very seriously because they know that’s the only way we’re going to win.”

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