COLLEGE PARK, Md. —
Both from and of Los Angeles, David Singleton didn’t own a winter coat until his itinerary demanded it this week. That’s not to say the UCLA shooting guard was wholly unprepared for his team’s East Coast swing.
His collection of more than 150 pairs of shoes happened to include a pair of Jordan 9 boots, their sturdy soles built for the cold, rainy mess the Bruins expect to endure while trekking for a road game against Maryland and a neutral-site showdown against Kentucky at New York’s Madison Square Garden.
The only other time UCLA has left home this season, venturing into the chilly Las Vegas desert, the Bruins were out of their element in the elements.
Losses to Illinois and Baylor left them with a lot of work to do to improve their NCAA tournament standing, like students who had missed two weeks of classes before a midterm exam. Wins over the No. 20 Terrapins (8-2) on Wednesday at Xfinity Center and the No. 13 Wildcats (7-2) on Saturday could help the No. 16 Bruins (8-2) catch up quickly.
“Games of this magnitude affect a lot,” UCLA coach Mick Cronin acknowledged when asked about the trip’s importance for NCAA tournament seeding purposes.
That being said ….
“You start worrying about seeding,” Cronin said, “you won’t make the tournament.”
In his latest NCAA tournament projections, released Tuesday morning, ESPN’s Joe Lunardi tabbed UCLA as a No. 4 seed in the South Region. That’s not a terrible place to be without a marquee victory, but the Bruins won’t get many more chances to significantly enhance their resume after this week given a mostly meh Pac-12 Conference that includes only one other nationally ranked team in No. 9 Arizona.
Playing Maryland could have a conference feel, given that the game will be played on the same day that University of California regents decide UCLA’s fate as a future member of the Big Ten Conference. The teams are scheduled to play again next season at Pauley Pavilion and could make it an annual affair as a conference game starting in 2024-25.
Cronin and Maryland counterpart Kevin Willard are already old pals after having spent two seasons together as assistants under coach Rick Pitino at Louisville. Those formative years are reflected in their teams. Just like Cronin’s Bruins, Willard’s Terrapins play a brand of defense that makes teams uncomfortable and often takes away their top scoring options.
Maryland’s personnel also might look familiar to UCLA fans. The Terrapins have a savvy, playmaking point guard in Jahmir Young and a tough, versatile guard masquerading as a power forward in Donta Scott, a stylistic clone of the Bruins’ Jaime Jaquez Jr.
“He shoots threes, he drives the ball, he gives them unbelievable toughness, he’s a winner,” Cronin said of Scott and by extension Jaquez.
A decisive edge in experience belongs to the Terrapins, who start two graduate transfers, two seniors and a sophomore. They should provide a good gauge of how much UCLA’s mix of two seniors, a junior and two freshman starters has grown since wilting in its first games against nationally ranked teams. The Bruins couldn’t handle Illinois’ pressure and failed to adequately defend or execute in the final minutes against Baylor.
“We learned we can’t compound a mistake,” Singleton said. “We can’t play a perfect game — no one ever has — but if you make one mistake, you can’t compound it by making another mistake or the snowball effect will happen.”
Cronin’s lengthy rant that could be heard two rooms away after the loss to Baylor had its intended effect, his team rolling off five consecutive victories. Amari Bailey and Dylan Andrews have since cornered the market on the Pac-12 freshman of the week award, Bailey winning the award twice and Andrews once.
They have hardly arrived, given that improvement in young players is rarely linear and college basketball is filled with veterans eager to humble those using the game as a momentary stopover on the way to the NBA.
“This is hard, especially now with sixth-year players, fifth-year players. Teams don’t have to rebuild with young guys, they just get [transfer] portal guys,” Cronin said. “How many freshmen even play in America? You know, it’s tough, you’re 18 playing against 22-year-olds. I mean, it’s a different world.”
Flying into the bitter cold could make Singleton feel like he’s arrived on Mars. He said he would query teammate Mac Etienne, a New York native, for advice on what brand of coat he should buy.
“I have no idea what to get,” Singleton said.
After playing Maryland, the Bruins are scheduled to take a train to New York, the team reserving its own compartment as part of a journey that could take on a “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” feel.
“Let’s hope John Candy doesn’t come back from the dead,” Cronin cracked of the late actor, “and he’s not on our train.”
Maybe that wouldn’t be the worst thing. Candy eventually reached his destination.