The overconfidence that Mick Cronin feared could be his team’s undoing should no longer be an issue.
Nationally ranked and picked to win the Pac-12 Conference, UCLA looked average at best in its season opener.
The No. 22 Bruins were missing two of their top players because of injuries and suffered from several other no-shows while getting flattened in a 73-58 loss to San Diego State on Wednesday night at Viejas Arena.
Chris Smith, the UCLA senior guard who returned for one more college season to boost his NBA stock, might have wished scouts from the Clippers, Golden State Warriors, Dallas Mavericks and Utah Jazz had not bothered to show up. He went scoreless after halftime, finishing with 10 points on three-for-seven shooting in only 27 minutes before fouling out.
San Diego State also flummoxed UCLA sophomore point guard Tyger Campbell, who finished with as nearly as many turnovers (three) as assists (four) while failing to help his team find any sort of sustained offensive rhythm.
The Aztecs extended their perimeter defense with the Bruins missing redshirt junior forward Jalen Hill, their top post player and rebounder. The results weren’t pretty for UCLA, which made seven of 21 three-pointers (33.3%).
UCLA was also missing the defensive tenaciousness that had sparked their 11-3 finish last season, recording just two blocks and one steal while playing in an empty arena that featured a few hundred cardboard cutouts of fans behind the baskets. There wasn’t much for new Bruins athletic director Martin Jarmond to cheer in his seat three rows behind the team bench.
Sophomore guard Jaime Jaquez Jr. led the Bruins (0-1) with 17 points and redshirt junior forward Cody Riley added 14 points and 12 rebounds while filling in for Hill. It wasn’t nearly enough.
UCLA was missing two of its top players with Hill held out because of tendinitis in his right knee and sophomore guard Johnny Juzang sidelined because of a stress reaction in his right foot. Neither participated in warmups and Juzang stood watching his teammates with his foot encased in a protective walking boot.
Hill was listed as day to day and closer to a return than Juzang, the Kentucky transfer who was considered week to week. A stress reaction is a precursor to a stress fracture and treatment usually involves rest.
Smith picked up his fourth foul with 11 minutes left, removed his mouthpiece and headed to the bench with his team down by 10. Cronin had no choice but to reinsert his best player a little more than two minutes later with the Aztecs having extended their advantage to 16.
It made no difference.
Guard Jordan Schakel and forward Matt Mitchell scored 15 points apiece to lead the Aztecs (1-0), who carried over some of the momentum from their 30-win season that was halted abruptly in March by the coronavirus.
UCLA couldn’t sustain a hot start in which it made six of its first eight shots to open the game, the Bruins going cold for a prolonged stretch and repeatedly turning the ball over thanks in part to a flurry of offensive fouls.
San Diego State took its first lead with a little more than eight minutes left in the first half as part of a 12-4 run made possible by the Bruins committing six turnovers in nine minutes. The Aztecs eventually built a 34-28 halftime thanks in large part to UCLA’s 10 turnovers to that point, including three by Jaquez.
Things were on the way to getting much worse for the Bruins.