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Hoping the fixes are in, UCLA seeks to revive struggling offense against Washington

Lose two in a row or win 14 straight, it doesn’t matter.

Mick Cronin’s approach never changes.

“You’ve got to focus,” the UCLA basketball coach said Wednesday, “on getting better.”

The point is for his team to be playing its best basketball in March, like a sprinter hitting top speed while breasting the finish-line tape.

The Bruins of the past 1½ weeks have more closely resembled a runner stumbling face-first into a puddle of mud. Their offense is in a funk. Their focus continues to waver. Their rotations are still a mess.

Some perspective reveals none of these flaws as necessarily fatal. Ninth-ranked UCLA just completed the toughest portion of its schedule, dropping road games against Arizona and USC after pulling out a breathtaking victory over Arizona State that extended its win streak to 14.

There’s plenty of mileage left to cover as the Bruins hit the midpoint of Pac-12 play. Everything they want remains within reach.

A glance at the conference standings shows the Bruins (17-4, 8-2 Pac-12) on top, leading Arizona by one-half game. They are projected as a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament by nearly everyone who compiles mock brackets.

“We’ve still got a lot of season left, there’s no reason to get panicked or get worried about anything that’s going on,” senior forward Jaime Jaquez Jr. said. “We know how to play, we know what we need to do to win.”

UCLA guard Jaime Jaquez Jr. shoots over USC forward Vincent Iwuchukwu during the Bruins’ loss on Jan. 26.

(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

Returning home to face Washington (13-10, 5-7) on Thursday evening at Pauley Pavilion, where UCLA is unbeaten this season, provides a perfect opportunity to work on the deficiencies that arose during the Bruins’ first losing streak since late November.

Atop the list: fixing an offense stuck in low gear. Over their last two games, the Bruins have averaged 58 points while making 33.3% of their shots. UCLA also committed more turnovers than its opponent for the first time this season during its meltdown against USC last week, leading to 20 Trojans points.

Cronin said his team got out-toughed in two “unbelievably physical” games in which it failed to adjust to the way the referees were making calls.

Compounding those struggles has been a team-wide shooting slump. Point guard Tyger Campbell has made nine of hist last 28 shots (32.1%). Senior guard David Singleton, the team’s best shooter, has made five of his last 19 shots (26.3%). Junior guard Jaylen Clark has made seven of his last 29 shots (24.1%) after missing all seven against USC.

A review of game footage showed that Clark was often looking away from the basket, not exactly the best way to improve his accuracy.

“That, in particular, has been an issue for him, what I call taking blind shots at the rim,” Cronin said. “That will kill your percentage, and I don’t care what your name is, you can be LeBron James or Jaylen Clark, if you’re taking blind shots off-balance, you’re going to struggle.”

UCLA coach Mick Cronin speaks to Jaylen Clark on the court during a win over Arizona State on Jan. 19

UCLA coach Mick Cronin speaks to Jaylen Clark on the court during a win over Arizona State on Jan. 19.

(Darryl Webb / Associated Press)

Indecisiveness is another issue. Waiting a moment too long to make a pass or drive toward the basket has allowed defenders to recover.

“It’s just being able to penetrate on the catch, rather than waiting a second to make a decision,” Jaquez said. “I think being more decisive with that decision-making — whether you’re gonna pass, drive or shoot it — and when you get the ball, know what you’re gonna do with it rather than just hold it.”

Help could come in several forms, including more minutes from Amari Bailey. In his first game back from the foot discomfort that sidelined him more than a month, the freshman guard provided a boost in his 22 minutes off the bench against the Trojans. He made only four of 10 shots but generated a layup with a steal and provided a sorely needed additional option on offense.

While remaining noncommittal when asked whether Bailey would move back into the starting lineup, Cronin acknowledged the need to establish more consistent rotations as a way to generate more consistent play. Cronin will presumably have another reserve at his disposal with Dylan Andrews available Thursday after the freshman guard sat out the USC game while recovering from an unspecified illness. Andrews was a full participant during the portion of practice open to the media Wednesday.

Win or lose, fix the problems or continue to struggle, the finish line has not come into sight for the Bruins. The race to become the best version of themselves has more than a month to go.

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