Known for being full go in everything he does, UCLA coach Mick Cronin would be completely satisfied with one half measure.
His team making 50% of its shots.
The No. 21 Bruins have achieved that threshold heading into their Pac-12 Conference opener against Stanford on Thursday night at Maples Pavilion, shooting 50.4% through their first seven games.
It’s an improbable place to be given that UCLA has sustained that sort of accuracy over a full season only once in the last quarter-century. Largely thanks to the superb passing of point guard Lonzo Ball, the Bruins shot 52.2% during the 2016-17 season amid a slew of dunks and layups.
What makes the current Bruins (5-2) serious candidates to repeat that feat is a guard-heavy lineup that includes willing passers beyond point guard Tyger Campbell. Amari Bailey’s biggest celebrations have come after highlight passes, not baskets, the freshman guard punctuating assists with a quick clap or fist pump.
“I enjoy my teammates’ successes more than mine,” said Bailey, who was the Pac-12 freshman of the week after averaging 15.5 points and six assists during victories over Pepperdine and Bellarmine. “So that’s really where that stems from. It’s a team sport. If I wanted to be glorified for my individual play, I would go do swim or tennis.”
Guard Jaylen Clark is skilled at finding his teammates in transition and forward Jaime Jaquez Jr. is just as happy passing out of a double team as he is attacking it. Off the bench, the Bruins have two more eager ball movers in David Singleton and Dylan Andrews.
Even 6-foot-10 freshman center Adem Bona has proven adept at passing, logging three of his team’s season-high 26 assists against Bellarmine last weekend. It was no coincidence that the Bruins shot a season-high 60.8% while making 28 of 35 shots (80%) inside the three-point arc, including three Bona dunks off lobs.
“I’ve been waiting for that all year,” Bona said with a smile after completing his first college game with multiple lob dunks.
Jaquez said shooting 50% had become an unofficial goal for a team that will notch a victory of sorts just by making it to tip-off against the Cardinal.
This is the third season that Pac-12 teams are playing each other before Christmas as part of an expanded 20-game conference schedule; in the first two, UCLA’s opening Pac-12 road game had to be postponed because of COVID-19 issues.
Two years ago, a referee tested positive for the coronavirus before a game against Oregon and the rest of the officiating crew was barred from working because of contact tracing. Last year, an outbreak of the disease on Washington’s team and coaching staff forced a game against the Bruins to be postponed until later in the season.
“I just hope we get through playing games,” said Cronin, whose first three seasons at UCLA all were disrupted by the pandemic. “It’d be good, have a normal season.”
Clark is expected to play against Stanford (3-4) after sitting out the game against Bellarmine because of cold symptoms, and redshirt freshman Mac Etienne also has been cleared after missing the last game with plantar fasciitis.
The Cardinal, which has not made the NCAA tournament since advancing to the Sweet 16 in 2013-14, is off to another slow start under coach Jerod Haase, dropping two of three games last week in the ESPN Events Invitational.
Having lost its first two games against nationally ranked teams, UCLA wants to extend a modest two-game winning streak before facing No. 22 Maryland and No. 19 Kentucky as part of an East Coast swing in a few weeks. Beating the Cardinal is next on the agenda.
“It’s just a huge game for us to be able to go on the road and get a conference win,” Cronin said, “and you can’t expect to win unless you go in there and outplay them.”