April 16, 2024

UCLA hasn’t played in the National Invitation Tournament in nearly 40 years, and that streak might not end this season even if the Bruins get selected.

Coach Mick Cronin suggested Tuesday a few things he might nitpick about the NIT that could prompt him to pass on college basketball’s second-tier tournament.

Drawbacks could include exacerbating injuries — Lazar Stefanovic has a bothersome foot and Sebastian Mack a sore toe — and diverting the coaching staff’s attention at a time when it needs to prioritize setting its roster for next season. The 45-day spring transfer portal window opens March 18, the day after Selection Sunday.

“Do you want to be distracted in a critical time for recruiting?” asked Cronin, whose Bruins (14-12 overall, 9-6 Pac-12) might need to win the Pac-12 tournament to secure an invitation to the NCAA tournament.

The 32-team NIT changed its selection criteria this season to extend automatic bids to the top two teams in the NCAA Evaluation Tool, or NET, rankings from each major conference that don’t make the NCAA tournament, regardless of won-loss record.

Currently, UCLA is No. 104 in the NET, trailing Pac-12 counterparts Arizona (No. 3), Washington State (No. 32), Colorado (No. 41), Utah (No. 47), Oregon (No. 64), Washington (No. 70) and Stanford (No. 102). Arizona and Washington State are the only teams from the conference widely projected to make the NCAA tournament as of this week.

For UCLA, the primary benefit of playing in the NIT would be giving a young team postseason experience, even if it’s not quite March Madness.

“I don’t know if that’s a postseason environment comparable to the NCAA tournament,” Cronin said. “I mean, it’s extra games if you win. But we haven’t had any discussions, I haven’t talked with my staff or with anybody about that.”

UCLA has not played in the NIT since losing a first-round game to UC Irvine in 1986. The previous year, the Bruins defeated Indiana in the championship game to win the NIT.

Good to go

UCLA guard Sebastian Mack looks to pass during a win over Colorado on Feb. 15.

UCLA guard Sebastian Mack looks to pass during a win over Colorado on Feb. 15.

(Raul Romero Jr. / Associated Press)

Cronin indicated that Mack would not face any further punishment after he was ejected midway through the first half Sunday for striking Utah’s Branden Carlson with a forearm to the throat area.

“He made a mistake, he’s a young kid,” Cronin said. “You move on.”

UCLA coaches showed players footage of the proper way to fight through a screen with an arm lowered versus raised, the latter maneuver being the one that earned Mack a flagrant-2 foul. Did Cronin consider it a dirty play?

“I don’t even go there because there were other plays in that game, too, from the other team,” Cronin said, apparently alluding to cheap shots. “So, teams compete. … I think everybody will draw their own conclusion on that. People that have competed will probably have a different opinion than some that haven’t competed. You know, who’s right, who’s wrong. He understands he was wrong.”

Decisions, decisions

Sophomore guard Dylan Andrews locked down USC’s Boogie Ellis when the teams met last month at Galen Center, holding his veteran counterpart to eight points on three-for-10 shooting during the Bruins’ 65-50 victory.

Trojans point guard Isaiah Collier didn’t play in that game while recovering from a hand injury, allowing Andrews to focus on Ellis. So who does Andrews guard in the rematch Saturday night at Pauley Pavilion now that Collier is back?

As expected, Cronin would not divulge his defensive plan other than laying out a dream scenario.

“I’d like Arron Afflalo on Boogie and I’d like Russell Westbrook on Collier,” Cronin cracked, referring to the former Bruins stars known for defense. “How’s that?”

Collier presents a different challenge than Ellis, Cronin said, “because Isaiah plays with tremendous strength and he plays a lot in the post.”

Etc.

UCLA center Adem Bona was not credited with a block on the final sequence Sunday but said he tipped the ball while contesting Utah guard Deivon Smith’s layup that went off the top of the backboard and fell into the hands of Carlson for a putback with two-tenths of a second left to lift the Utes to a 70-69 victory. “I got a little piece of it, not a lot where I could hit it out of bounds,” Bona said. “It’s kind of a tough play where they had a hell of a rebounder, he got the ball and put it back in, but it was a crushing play.” … UCLA is seeking its first regular-season sweep of USC since the 2017-18 season.

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