One didn’t need to squint across the Pacific Ocean to see Mick Cronin’s new lump of blue-and-gold clay starting to take form.
The arms belonged to Ilane Fibleuil, snagging rebounds over players several inches taller.
The legs were those of Lazar Stefanovic, gutting out 40 minutes to give his team a chance.
The heart was that of Sebastian Mack, the gritty guard constantly driving into harm’s way to get his team a basket or two free throws.
UCLA (4-2) lost two of three games in the Maui Invitational but might have found a way to turn promise into success with its freshman-heavy roster.
Here are five takeaways from the Bruins’ sixth-place finish in the tournament:
Four years after the Bruins discovered Jaime Jaquez Jr.’s relentlessness in this tournament, they might have unearthed another program cornerstone.
At 6 feet 6, Fibleuil showed an exceptional rebounding ability for his size, grabbing eight rebounds in only 17 minutes against Gonzaga on Wednesday to go with six points, two blocked shots and a late steal that gave his team a chance to tie the score in the final minute.
Fibleuil’s rebounding total exceeded that of UCLA’s foul-plagued big men Adem Bona, Aday Mara and Kenneth Nwuba, who combined for just five in their 39 minutes.
It also caught the attention of a former Bruin known for his refusal to give up on a play.
“Man I’m rocking wit [sic] 8!” tweeted Jaylen Clark, now a Minnesota Timberwolves rookie.
Fibleuil made a compelling case to start. Which leads us to …
Start them up
There appears to be only one starting spot up for grabs with Mack, Stefanovic, point guard Dylan Andrews and Bona having established themselves as mainstays of the rotation.
Aday Mara, Kenneth Nwuba and Berke Buyuktuncel have taken turns starting with that group, none making a compelling case to remain in the role.
The answer appears to have presented itself in Fibleuil, who can match up with many power forwards. He was responsible for Anton Watson’s only miss Wednesday, defending the Gonzaga forward on the one shot that didn’t go in on the way to finishing the game 14-of-15 shooting from the field for 32 points.
Back to small ball?
After tinkering with a two-big lineup, Cronin should consider going back to the four-out, one-in approach that worked so well in recent seasons.
Or at least giving it a look for a few games.
While no one should make definitive judgments six games into a season, Mara appears in need of more strength to play at this level. He has been unable to parlay being 7-3 into any sort of dominance, playing only three foul-plagued minutes against Gonzaga.
“Just trying to win the game,” Cronin said. “He’s got to get better — great kid, he’s got to get better.”
Predictably, Buyuktuncel has been out of sorts after a season debut delayed while awaiting NCAA clearance. His size and toughness make him an asset, but he has struggled to find an early touch while making three of 17 shots (17.6%) in three games.
There’s no denying that Buyuktuncel’s presence is a plus defensively. If he can start making shots, he’ll give his coach another player who is hard to take out of a game.
Take your time
Running the offense through Bona was a great idea against Saint Francis and Lafayette.
Against Gonzaga, not so much.
Looking like he was in too much of a hurry to make a play, Bona struggled against tougher competition in Honolulu. He repeatedly had the ball stripped, rushed shots around the basket and couldn’t find open teammates with passes.
Perhaps more concerning, he kept getting beat by Watson while failing to become the defensive stopper his team needed. And he’s averaging only 6.5 rebounds, a low figure for someone with his size and athleticism.
Six games into his second college season, the team’s top pro prospect doesn’t look quite ready for the NBA.
“I forget at times, he’s so talented, that he’s a sophomore and he’s not a junior, he’s not a senior,” Cronin said.
The Bruins’ leading scorer is a fearless freshman whose forays to the basket are usually instant offense.
Whether he makes a driving layup or gets fouled — or both — Mack has dragged his team out of multiple offensive slumps while averaging a team-leading 15.8 points. His ability to get to the free-throw line has also made him UCLA’s leader in free throws made (35) and attempted (42), his 83.3% accuracy meaning he’s going to be the player with the ball in his hands late in any game his team leads.
With its offense generating little besides headaches in the first half against Gonzaga, UCLA happily accepted a circus shot by Mack in which he drove into multiple defenders in the lane before flinging the ball high into the air. With his back to the basket, the ball fell through the net to roars from the stunned crowd. Mack was fouled on the play and made the free throw to convert a three-point play.
Mack also made five steals against Chaminade. He has earned the comparison that Cronin made to other tough players on his Cincinnati teams when the coach said Mack “has a little Bearcat in him.”
Fortunately for Cronin, he’s a Bruin.