UCLA’s NCAA tournament identity – with injuries – could start to take shape against UNC Asheville – Daily News

March 16, 2023

Most of the college basketball schedule is taken up by conference play when teams battle each other so often that becoming “familiar” is an understatement. Then, of course, comes the conference tournament where teams clash for a third time.

It’s why winning conference games is so difficult. The players and coaches see each other so many times – plus the film and prep – the slightest detail makes a difference in victory or defeat.

The NCAA tournament is a little different, with a lot more at stake.

When two teams that have never faced each other before meet in the NCAA Tournament, it doesn’t matter how much film you watch or how good your scout team is. Anything can happen. It’s why it’s called March Madness.

After all the prep, and all the questions in the media press conference Wednesday afternoon, even UCLA coach Mick Cronin put it simply.

“We got to score more points than Asheville,” Cronin said. “I know all the rest of this stuff is neat, but (Drew) Pember … if he gets 48, we’re in trouble. He also plays with the leading scorer in the history of their school (Tajion Jones), which is a very interesting combination.”

No. 2-seeded UCLA will face No. 15 UNC Asheville in the first round of the NCAA tournament’s West Region at 7:05 p.m. Thursday in Sacramento on truTV.

Cronin made his first NCAA appearance as a head coach with Murray State in 2004. This week he’ll embark on his 14th tournament run. In all those years of experience, what stands out that’s most important in these tournaments?

“The toughest one for us right now, being healthy, in my opinion, by far. Being healthy. Having your players at game time. Practice is overrated at this time of year. Got to be healthy,” Cronin said.

Jaylen Clark is out and Adem Bona’s is a game-time decision because of a shoulder injury.

“Adem is getting better,” Cronin said. “He was better today. He’s able to do some stuff in practice today. We’ll see how he feels. He’s just sore, so every day is a progressive day for him. So we’ll see tomorrow.”

The injuries raise questions about UCLA’s identity heading into the tournament. When facing teams for the first time, the good ones seem to have an identity to lean on, an identity that is foundational to success when things aren’t going their way.

Senior point guard Tyger Campbell says the Bruins will lean on what’s made them so good all year.

“Our identity is defense. Coming into the tournament, we feel like we can control those things. Like you can’t control when the ball goes in,” Campbell said. “… You can control how hard you play on defense, you can control boxing out, certain things you can do on the defensive end.”

UCLA is ranked No. 1 in defensive efficiency, according to the KenPom rankings.

It’s hard to keep up the nation’s top defense without Jaylen Clark, who won the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year award this season. Bona was named to the Pac-12 all-defense team, too.

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