No. 25 Cincinnati heads west to visit UCLA

LOS ANGELES — UCLA returns home to Pauley Pavilion on Saturday, one week removed from a tough road loss and seeking a marquee win against No. 25 Cincinnati.

The Bruins (7-2) saw a 15-point second-half lead slip away their last time out in a 78-69, overtime loss Dec. 9 at Michigan.

Michigan forced 20 UCLA turnovers in that game, a number the Bruins need to trim against one of the most aggressive defenses in the nation at Cincinnati.

“They started to jump passing lanes a little bit and become more aggressive,” center Thomas Welsh said. “Even if they are jumping passing lanes that opens up space for back door cuts, so it was poor reads on our part.”

Meanwhile, the Bearcats (8-2) come in playing the defensive style for which they have developed a reputation throughout coach Mick Cronin’s tenure. Cincinnati ranks No. 4 in adjusted defensive efficiency per KenPom.com metrics, and No. 32 in turnover creation.

The Bearcats climbed up the polls after a perfect start, peaking at No. 11. But back-to-back losses to rival Xavier on Dec. 2 and Florida on Dec. 9 sent Cincinnati tumbling.

Cronin’s club bounced back Dec. 12 with a 65-50 win over Mississippi State, an effort much more reflective of its defensive prowess than either of the two losses.

“So, we did a great job with our half-court defense. We got, I thought, some key steals to get some easy baskets,” Cronin said following the win. “This was a defensive victory, no question about it. We’re still searching on offense, at times, with guys in new roles on this team.”

Players in new roles should indeed prove pivotal to Saturday’s contest, on both sides. These teams met just nine months ago in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, a game UCLA won, 79-67.

The Bruins effectively forced the Bearcats out of their comfort zone with an uptempo style of play, and avoided turnovers with just three committed all game. However, UCLA had Lonzo Ball at point guard for that contest; he is now in the same position but 10 miles further east in Los Angeles with the NBA’s Lakers.

UCLA also lost forward T.J. Leaf and guard Isaac Hamilton, as well as key reserve big man Ike Anigbogu. Cincinnati lost guards Kevin Johnson and Troy Caupain from last season’s starting lineup.

The search for its identity without prominent members of the 2016-17 roster shaped the first month of UCLA’s 2017-18. The suspensions of freshmen Jalen Hill, Cody Riley and LiAngelo Ball compounded concerns about the rotation.

Those concerns came to a head on Dec. 9, with four of UCLA’s starters playing 30 minutes or more, including 43 minutes from guard Aaron Holiday, the Bruins leading scorer at 17.7 points per game.

“We did not give him or Tom (Welsh) nearly enough rest,” UCLA coach Steve Alford said following the loss at Michigan. “We have to find ways of doing that and build that trust within our bench.”

Cincinnati leans as heavily on its starters, but the Bearcats have found a cornerstone in their recent stretch in swingman Jacobs Evans. He comes into Saturday’s game off performances of 23 points Dec. 2 vs. Xavier, and 24 points in the win over Mississippi State.