UCLA's blowout loss to Arizona fuels expectations of a Bruins roster overhaul

In case Mick Cronin needed a reminder, the most important work he does this month will come once the season ends.

The transfer portal opens March 18.

Developing UCLA’s current roster won’t be enough given the talent discrepancy on display Thursday night against a hated nemesis. One team looked capable of a deep March run and the other appeared in a rush to end its season.

The big question is how many of these battered Bruins will be back next November?

They barely put up any fight against No. 5 Arizona in the final game between the teams at Pauley Pavilion as Pac-12 rivals, UCLA sputtering its way to an 88-65 loss that was an unworthy final chapter in the storied series.

“We didn’t play well,” Bruins guard Lazar Stefanovic, who scored all 20 of his points in the second half, said in something of an understatement. “Didn’t communicate, didn’t execute the stuff that we said we would in the locker room, stuff we talked about. Their team is going to take advantage of that, and you can’t allow mistakes like that against them. We didn’t play good enough, and that’s the bottom line.”

The dreaded “U of A!” chants from Wildcats fans broke out in the final minute before halftime with the Bruins (14-16 overall, 9-10 Pac-12) already trailing by 17 points on the way to their fifth consecutive loss. Arizona (24-6, 15-4) clinched the conference’s regular-season title and remained in the running for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.

The prospects are much more grim for UCLA. The Bruins will need to beat Arizona State on Saturday and win at least two games in the Pac-12 tournament to avoid finishing with their first losing record since the 2015-16 season.

Given the way they have played over the last three weeks, don’t count on it.

Having compensated for a shoddy offense with elite rebounding and just a smattering of turnovers during a stretch in which it won eight of nine games, UCLA has been an across-the-board mess since dropping its home heartbreaker to Utah on Feb. 18.

Bruins point guard Dylan Andrews (18 points against the Wildcats) has looked like an All-Pac-12 player the last few weeks and center Adem Bona (10 points, five rebounds) has produced some highlights, including his drive around Arizona’s Oumar Ballo for a vicious two-handed dunk in the game’s opening minutes. It hasn’t been nearly enough.

Ready or not, Bona could be gone to the NBA in June. Cronin compared Bona to former Cincinnati star Kenyon Martin, who went on to be the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft, while noting that the latter player stayed four years in college.

“He’s got a lot to learn,” Cronin said of Bona, “but he’s got unbelievable attitude, explosion, but he’s got to learn how to play smarter. We’re trying to play through him on offense; he was never an offensive player until this year. It’s a growth spurt for him, he’s trying, I just don’t have enough help for him right now.”

Andrews is expected back, but it seems obvious that UCLA could use an impact post player and a couple of sharpshooting wings via the transfer portal.

If Bona were to leave, the Bruins would have at least two available scholarships. Others could depart given a lack of playing time or the likelihood of a reduced role behind incoming transfers.

One of the most fascinating things to track will be UCLA’s European freshmen. Berke Buyuktuncel, Aday Mara, Jan Vide and Ilane Fibleuil combined for eight points — all by Vide — against the Wildcats, with Fibleuil never getting off the bench and Mara limited to two minutes.

All four players arrived to great fanfare but have largely been disappointing, though Mara has shown some promise on offense in recent weeks.

“You just have to evaluate who you can build with and who gets better,” Cronin said. “But, no, I mean, a lot of our freshmen have not played the way and developed the way I would’ve hoped. … When you get outclassed, it’s obvious.”

Freshman guard Sebastian Mack, the team’s leading scorer, will almost certainly be welcomed back. The same goes for freshman forward Brandon Williams, who has regularly been described by Cronin as the team’s toughest player.

But those who can’t play Cronin’s brand of relentless defense won’t get many minutes on a better team. The coach mentioned Mack, Vide, Williams, Buyuktuncel and sophomore guard Will McClendon as incapable of staying with their man.

“They get beat every time somebody dribbles the ball,” Cronin said. “Most teams, they have to run stuff to hurt you; all you’ve got to do is drive by us.”

The Bruins probably won’t compete for much of anything next season without an infusion of talent considering the way they were overwhelmed by Arizona while falling behind by as many as 28 points.

Fans can get their popcorn out. The roster moves in the coming weeks figure to be more intriguing than the season that’s about to mercifully end.

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