Men’s basketball hopes to get back on track against Bruins

UCLA is undefeated in conference play this season; Bruins have won last four games



Then-WSU forward Robert Franks attempts to block a shot from then-UCLA sophomore guard Kris Wilkes in Beasley Coliseum.

RYAN ROOT, Evergreen reporter

After a 1-1 record in the Bay Area last week, the WSU men’s basketball team is on the road once more as the Cougars (9-2, 2-2) face the UCLA Bruins (9-2, 5-0) at 2 p.m. Thursday in the Pauley Pavilion in Los Angeles, Calif.

Historically, WSU has not fared well against the Bruins on the road. The last Cougar win in the Pauley Pavilion was over a decade ago. WSU came very close to a victory in last year’s road game, as the Cougars lost by just three points in overtime.

But this year, WSU has a top-40 recruiting class, returning veterans from last year, and a promising start for the remainder of the season. However, the Bruins have not regressed at all.

The Bruins are undefeated in conference play and sit in first place in the Pac-12 standings — plus, they are receiving votes for the Associated Press’ top 25.

UCLA had one considerable bump in the road this season when one of their top scorers, senior guard Chris Smith, suffered a torn ACL in a game against Utah on New Year’s Eve.

Despite the absence of Chris Smith for the rest of the season, UCLA still runs an extremely balanced scoring attack, with five Bruin players averaging double-digit points.

WSU head coach Kyle Smith said his focus is on UCLA sophomore guard Tyger Campbell, who leads the Pac-12 in assists per game with 6.4. Smith said Campbell and the Bruins’ centers are the two positions that have been key to UCLA’s success.

“They’re well balanced, they shoot the ball really well, they’re really efficient offensively,” Smith said. “But I think it starts with their point guard and their play at center.”

Senior guard Isaac Bonton played some of his best games of last season against UCLA in both matchups. Because Bonton was not the primary scoring option for the Cougars last year and now this season he is, the stars are somewhat aligned for Bonton to have another breakout performance and continue his hot streak.

Although his scoring has been a highlight, Bonton’s playmaking has improved as well. There have been multiple scoring options for WSU that have had their own respective breakout performances, such as freshman forward Andrej Jakimovski.

Jakimovski had his best scoring performance this season in WSU’s last game against Stanford. WSU ended up losing to the Cardinal, but Jakimovski saw some moral victories in the defeat. The team just needs to keep its momentum going, he added.

“Just put in work every day,” Jakimovski said following the loss. “We come back on Monday, we put in work, and get ready for the next game.”

Jakimovski is averaging almost 10 points and over two three-pointers over the past four games. Jakimovski could see more touches come his way against UCLA because sophomore guard Noah Williams may not return on Thursday following his scary fall on his tailbone.

An aspect of the game that WSU has struggled with this season is ball control. The Cougars have given up almost 15 turnovers per game thus far, which is vastly different than the Cougars’ numbers last season.

Although WSU has improved in nearly every statistical category this season, this issue is somewhat glaring for the team moving forward. In both of the team’s losses, the Cougars turned over the ball in double figures.

Smith said this issue is likely due to the big men on the team since their talents lie in the length and athleticism department. But regardless, it’s an issue that the team needs to solve sooner rather than later.

“We got to grind through and we got to value the ball better,” Smith said.

As for the players in COVID protocol for WSU, redshirt freshman Brandton Chatfield should be “good to go” this weekend while sophomore forward DJ Rodman and sophomore guard Ryan Rapp are still in protocol.

The game between UCLA and WSU will tip-off at 2 p.m. on Thursday. It will air on Fox Sports 1.