Friday, December 9

UCLA men’s basketball looks to defend perfect record in Las Vegas matchups

Fifth-year guard David Singleton rises up for a shot. Singleton and No. 8 UCLA men's basketball will take on their first ranked opponent of the season Friday. (Joseph Jimenez/Assistant Photo editor)

Men's basketball

No. 19 Illinois
Friday, 6:30 p.m.

T-Mobile Arena

One top-20 team will be stripped of its undefeated record when the Bruins and Fighting Illini battle it out on the Strip this weekend.

No. 8 UCLA men’s basketball (3-0) will get a Big Ten taste test in its matchup against No. 19 Illinois (3-0) at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas on Friday. The victor will face either No. 5 Baylor or No. 16 Virginia on Sunday as part of the Continental Tire Main Event.

“You come to UCLA to play against top-25 opponents,” said coach Mick Cronin. “You want to play on the big stage, you want to try to have a chance to go to Final Fours, play for titles, so to do that you have to play good teams.”

The last time the blue and gold took the T-Mobile Arena court in a regular-season game, the stage was set for an epic rematch of the Final Four game in which Gonzaga sent shockwaves through its audience of 18.8 million viewers with its buzzer-beater victory. But the second time around, the Bruins couldn’t contain the Bulldogs and dropped a 20-point result to dash any hope of avenging that season-ending loss.

Now, Cronin’s squad looks different than it did last year after welcoming six true freshmen to Westwood. The Fighting Illini also have many newcomers, with Illinois down all five starters and 10 players total from last season.

By contrast, the Bruins still benefit from veterans: two starters from the Final Four run in redshirt senior guard Tyger Campbell and senior guard/forward Jaime Jaquez Jr., in addition to fifth-year guard David Singleton.

Cronin said with the combination of seasoned players and fresh talent, the Bruins have limited opponents’ production beyond the arc with steady improvements on the defensive end.

“I think our perimeter defense is just better with (freshman guard) Amari (Bailey) and (junior guard) Jaylen Clark,” Cronin said. “You come in with Dave, who’s a veteran, (freshman guard) Dylan (Andrews), can really defend on the perimeter as well, so I think we’re a little more athletic.”

Cronin admitted that holding teams to 18.9% on average through three contests is not realistic as the Bruins take their game from the mid-majors to ranked opponents. Illinois is averaging double that statistic with a 36% three-point shooting clip on the season.

The Sunday afternoon contest will bring its own challenges, with Baylor being a top-five team in the nation and Virginia looking to rebound after missing the NCAA tournament last season for the first time in almost a decade.

The Bears are readjusting after the loss of key players in the offseason to the NBA Draft and transfer portal but have bolstered their roster with five newcomers, including two Division I transfers.

Singleton said the advice he gave the younger players ahead of this tournament is to maintain perspective and stay ready.

“Just slow down and take a breath,” Singleton said. “It’s going to be an exciting moment for everyone. They’re a great team, they’re going to hit back, and they’re going to hit back hard. You just have to weather the storm, and you just have to stay connected.”

Freshman forward Adem Bona – who has started in the Bruins’ past two contests and averaged nine points and 6.5 rebounds in 20 minutes per game – said he is willing to do that and more.

“I believe I will do anything for the team to win,” Bona said. “I believe I’m a winner, I do everything in my part to help the team win. Anything that’s needed of me, I will do it. That’s my role.”

The Bruins will test their talent versus Illinois in the T-Mobile Arena at 6:30 p.m. on Friday. UCLA’s matchup against Baylor or Virginia will commence at either noon or 2:30 p.m. on Sunday.

Assistant Sports editor

Wang is a 2022-2023 assistant Sports editor on the women's basketball, men's soccer, men's golf and track and field beats. She was previously a reporter on the women's basketball beat and contributor on the men's and women's golf beats. Wang is a third-year history major and community engagement and social change minor.

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