April 13, 2024

Having recently been housebound by infectious illness, Mick Cronin stepped in front of reporters Tuesday and quelled any fears about a risk of contagion.

“Don’t worry,” the UCLA coach said, “I’ve tested negative for about five straight days.”

Cronin’s second bout with COVID-19, which sidelined him for a week and forced him to miss his team’s great escape against UC Riverside, was worse than his first teeth-chattering encounter with the disease two years ago.

“Way worse,” he said.

Cronin watched his team pull out a 66-65 victory over the Highlanders on television, the first time he had experienced that sense of helplessness since missing the last 25 games of the 2014-15 season at Cincinnati with a vascular condition called arterial dissection.

Beyond his team’s struggles, Cronin saw two players go down because of injuries. Forward Berke Buyuktuncel left because of an ankle injury and guard Sebastian Mack had to be helped off the court after aggravating a bothersome toe. Mack was back at practice Tuesday, but Buyuktuncel watched from a courtside chair while pushing his right foot against an elastic band to strengthen the area.

Cronin said Buyuktuncel would not play Saturday when UCLA (5-2) faces Villanova (6-3) at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia.

His absence will only increase the need for the Bruins to get more production out of center Adem Bona, who fouled out of the game against UC Riverside after only 14 minutes. Combine that with a disappointing performance from guard Lazar Stefanovic and the Bruins very nearly fell to a team from the Big West Conference with a losing record.

It took Dylan Andrews’ floating jumper with three seconds left to alleviate fans’ unease and associate head coach Darren Savino’s fears that he would not be able to deliver his close friend win No. 469 of his career.

“Things can snowball, you know, you get the one night Adem and Lazar both decide to get in foul trouble and Berke’s hurt, finally gets comfortable and gets it going and he goes down,” Cronin said. “So I thought Darren did a great job holding it together, did a great job obviously on the last play with Dylan, so you’ve got to take the positives from it because a lot of people lose in those situations.”

Bona’s foul trouble has been an ongoing issue. He has logged four or more fouls in three of his last four games. In a related development, the sophomore who is supposed to be UCLA’s best player has averaged just 22 minutes over that stretch.

“Adem can’t have ridiculous fouls,” Cronin said. “If he’s going to foul, he’s got to foul stopping layups at the rim, stopping dunks, stopping layups. You know, we have way too many offensive fouls for no reason, running over a guy or an illegal screen.”

More encouraging was the play of freshman center Aday Mara, who had nine points, four rebounds and two assists in a season-high 25 minutes. Cronin credited Mara with persevering through his early season struggles rather than feeling defeated by them.

“What’s good for Aday is to come to college, get beat up, force himself to get stronger, learn how to play with people trying to beat him up and go through it every day,” Cronin said. “Now you fight through it and you become a real player that can have a very long, successful career.”

Learning remains a constant on a team with seven freshmen. Cronin’s mantra that “winners know why they win” can be heard inside the practice facility about as often as the squeak of sneakers.

High on the list of musts is keeping Bona on the court. Getting their coach back helps too.

From worst to first

The Bruins have been pretty dreadful shooting from long range.

Will McClendon is a startling exception.

One year after he made a team-low 7.1% of his three-pointers, McClendon is shooting a team-leading 42.1% from beyond the arc. The redshirt sophomore guard has made eight of 19 three-pointers after having made just two of 28 a season ago.

Coaches worked on McClendon’s form over the summer after he seemed almost hesitant to shoot toward the end of last season. Now he’s letting the shots fly whenever he can.

“Every time that you see the ball go through the hoop, confidence builds,” McClendon said. “So, yeah, my confidence is really high and that’s good as we take this road trip to Villanova for sure.”

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