Defense is name of game as No. 4 UCLA meets Utah


No. 4 UCLA will aim to extend its winning streak to seven games when the Bruins head to Salt Lake City on Thursday for a matchup with Pac-12 counterpart Utah.

UCLA (23-4, 14-2 Pac-12) maintained its 1 1/2-game lead atop the conference standings last week with a home sweep of Bay Area schools Stanford and Cal. In the latter, a 78-43 rout, the Bruins defense allowed a season-low in scoring.

“Our defense was as good as it could be early in the game, and then we held them to 11 field goals for the entire game. Good effort by us,” UCLA coach Mick Cronin said. “We try to practice that hard around here. The results speak for themselves when you do that.”

The Bruins boast the nation’s No. 2-ranked defense in adjusted efficiency through games played Monday, per advanced metrics. They are forcing turnovers on almost a quarter of opponent possessions, and their opponent 3-point field-goal percentage of 30.7 ranks No. 31 nationally.

UCLA’s tenacious defense also showed through in the Bruins’ last matchup with Utah. The 49 points the Utes scored in the Jan. 12 meeting in Los Angeles matched their fewest of the 2022-23 season.

Utah (17-11, 10-7) seeks a reversal of fortune on Thursday, both against UCLA and with the Utes’ fast-evaporating hopes for an NCAA Tournament at-large bid.

Utah lost both of its games on last week’s road swing through the Arizona schools, 88-62 at then-No. 8 Arizona and 67-59 at Arizona State on Saturday. The defeats were the Utes’ third and fourth in their last six games and dropped them to No. 57 in the NCAA’s NET rankings.

Compounding the team’s concerns ahead of the final two weekends of the regular season, Utah could be without Rollie Worster. The guard, averaging 8.7 points, 5.2 rebounds and a team-high 5.1 assists per game, sustained an ankle injury Saturday at Arizona State.

“The message is we might be different again, and there’s going to be some different guys that are going to have to do some different things and be in different roles,” Utes coach Craig Smith said in his Monday radio show, per the Salt Lake Tribune. “We, as coaches, need to evaluate everything, from who’s playing, your scheme, what are we going to do differently to beat UCLA and USC.”

Utah has been without wing Gabe Madsen, an 11.7 ppg scorer, since he exited the Utes’ Jan. 28 loss to Oregon after two minutes. Madsen was officially declared out on Feb. 2 for four to six weeks due to a lower leg injury.

Utah is averaging 63.8 points per game in the past six games without Madsen, compared to 71.5 points per game in the previous 22. The Utes have scored 63 points or fewer in five of their last seven outings.

They have, however, held seven of their last nine opponents to fewer than 70 points. The Utes rank No. 34 nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, boast the seventh-lowest opponent 3-point field-goal percentage at 28.6 and have the 13th-lowest opponent 2-point field-goal percentage at 44.6.

–Field Level Media

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