NEW YORK —
What was so hard about that?
Three days after routing No. 20 Maryland on the road, No. 16 UCLA took Manhattan on Saturday with a 63-53 victory over No. 13 Kentucky at Madison Square Garden in the CBS Sports Classic.
A trip that had once appeared so daunting given the Bruins’ struggles the last time they faced nationally ranked teams — resulting in two losses in Las Vegas — left them with celebratory smiles after a sweep.
Along the way, UCLA found a formula that could sustain it the rest of the season.
Take care of the ball. Defend. Play with fearlessness.
UCLA did all three on this trip, resembling a team that could compete for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.
“We know what we’re capable of,” Bruins coach Mick Cronin said, “if we defend and play with the toughness we played with this week.”
Here are five takeaways from UCLA’s East Coast swing as it careens toward the heart of its Pac-12 schedule:
Let’s go streaking
There’s no telling how long UCLA’s winning streak might last.
Seven consecutive victories have boosted the Bruins (10-2) to No. 3 in the nation in the metrics of basketball analyst Ken Pomeroy, who also projects them to lose only one more game — by one point at Arizona on Jan. 21.
Pomeroy gives UCLA, which has won its first two Pac-12 games, a 1.9% chance of going unbeaten in conference play.
For the Bruins’ next game, against UC Davis on Wednesday afternoon at Pauley Pavilion, they’ve been given a win probability of 99%. Poor Aggies.
Quite a combination
Known for defense, Cronin might finally be changing perceptions.
His offense is ranked No. 3 nationally by Pomeroy, outpacing a superb defense that’s ranked No. 12. The Bruins rank second in the Pac-12 in points per game (80.3), field-goal percentage (50.1%) and assists per game (16) while leading the conference in turnovers per game (9.9).
“When I was at Cincinnati,” Cronin cracked, “they called me to clinics to talk on defense; now I’m going to get called for offense.”
Did Cronin change his coaching style?
“Yeah, I’ve got better players,” Cronin said. “And way smarter.”
Cronin then laughed as he looked toward Jaime Jaquez Jr. seated next to him in the interview room.
“I’m a genius with him and Tyger [Campbell] playing a two-man game,” Cronin continued. “It’s amazing, isn’t it?”
His defense is still causing plenty of problems. UCLA leads the Pac-12 in steals per game (9.0) and is third in points per game allowed (62.2) after holding Maryland to 60 and Kentucky to 53.
It’s always something
The old criticisms no longer applicable, coaches recruiting against Cronin will always find something to hold against him.
“The new thing is tempo — ‘Look at their tempo. Look at their tempo,’ ” Cronin said, repeating a phrase that has made the rounds. “You know what I say? ‘Look at the temperature’ because we’re going home and it’s going to be 75. I’m grilling out on Christmas.”
Covering up a blemish
UCLA’s top two big men, both in foul trouble, didn’t provide much against Kentucky.
Starter Adem Bona went scoreless in 12 minutes, though he did grab four rebounds and block two shots. Primary backup Kenneth Nwuba fouled out after 13 minutes in which he collected two points and three rebounds.
Enter Mac Etienne. The New York native blocked a shot by Kentucky’s Oscar Tshiebwe in the final minutes to help the Bruins close out the game and snagged five rebounds in only 13 minutes.
“All his friends and family are here,” UCLA guard Jaylen Clark said of Etienne, “so he couldn’t have picked a better time to show out the way he did.”
Still wearing a bulky brace on one leg, Etienne appears in line for a bigger role as he rounds into form from the knee injury that sidelined him last season.
From the starters to the bench mob of walk-ons Russell Stong IV, Logan Cremonesi, Jack Seidler and Evan Manjikian, it’s apparent these Bruins have built a happy den.
The team’s ball movement is the best it’s been under Cronin and players spend part of every interview praising one another.
Their collective roar from inside the locker room after beating Kentucky could be heard far down a hallway.
“Man, we just like happy flights,” Clark said when asked about the postgame revelry. “Happy flights. That’s what we want. We want to be able to play ‘Smash Bros.’ on the way home, have a great time.”