UCLA-North Carolina matchup in Las Vegas is marquee in name only

Consumers who expect filet mignon to taste like filet mignon and a Mercedes to drive like a Mercedes could be confused by what they see Saturday afternoon when UCLA plays North Carolina.

Neither team has looked anything like a college basketball blueblood, the status that their combined 18 national championships automatically confer upon whoever slips on one of their revered jerseys.

UCLA hasn’t been able to stay in front of anyone on defense and botched one play out of a timeout last weekend against Notre Dame when two players whiffed on screens that were supposed to free guard David Singleton for a three-pointer.

North Carolina recently lost at home to Wofford and has dropped four consecutive games for the first time in a decade, leading coach Roy Williams to seek colorful solutions.

“I’ll play in a damn Red Forest if we play a lot better and be a lot happier,” Williams said after the defeat against Wofford, North Carolina’s first game inside old Carmichael Auditorium since 1986.

The Bruins (7-4) and Tar Heels (6-5) might prefer their showdown as part of the CBS Sports Classic be confined to one of those secret closed scrimmages with only coaches watching, but it will instead be held in the 18,000-seat T-Mobile Arena while also being nationally televised.

That means every blown defensive assignment, badly missed jumper and silly foul will be seen by the masses who have come to expect greatness from these teams.

UCLA fans in attendance might scan the crowd in hopes of spotting Daishen Nix, the star point guard from Las Vegas Trinity International School who has signed with the Bruins and is expected to attend the game. He’ll get to see just how far the Bruins remain from respectability nearing the midpoint of coach Mick Cronin’s first season.

Cronin might feel like he’s coaching the Brubabes, as the team’s freshman squad under coach John Wooden was known, given his players’ youth and repeated mistakes. UCLA tried a matchup zone against Notre Dame to hide some of its weaknesses but discovered it was like trying to put out a kitchen fire with a tissue. The Bruins missed layups and free throws while losing their man in transition defense for a three-pointer on three occasions.

“We had breakdowns no matter what,” Cronin said.

UCLA could play a second consecutive game without sophomore guard Jules Bernard, who is recovering from a shoulder injury that forced him to put his right arm in a sling.

North Carolina will be missing significant star wattage with freshman sensation Cole Anthony sidelined by a knee injury that is expected to keep him out for at least the next month. The Tar Heels were subjected to the dreaded “NIT!” chants Wednesday during a 94-81 loss at No. 2 Gonzaga that gave them their longest losing streak since the 2009-10 season, the last time they missed the NCAA tournament.

Coincidentally, that also was the last time Cronin failed to make the tournament while coaching at Cincinnati. He eventually turned the Bearcats into consistent winners using the same formula that has imbued his new players with optimism despite their ragged start.

“I feel like we can be really good,” UCLA forward Cody Riley said. “I know it’s early right now, so I don’t get too crazy. Just take the hits and learn from it. But it’s early and we got a lot of season left and I feel like we can be really special.”

Cronin expressed concern about his team’s ability to match up with North Carolina’s interior size, but rebounding has been one area in which his team has thrived. The Bruins have outrebounded all but one opponent and their plus-8.8 margin ranks first among Pac-12 teams.

Of course, what they have done with those rebounds is another matter. UCLA had three offensive rebounds on one possession against Notre Dame, only to miss the putback each time. Riley and forward Jalen Hill combined to make only three of 16 shots, with Cronin saying this week that his big men needed to do a better job of reading defenses and moving the ball to the open player.

Cronin repeatedly mentioned how he has a new cast of players growing into expanded roles, as if to remind himself that UCLA can, one day, become UCLA again.

“The work we’re putting in now will pay off,” Cronin said. “Sometimes it’s painful in the interim.”

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