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Expected starters Johnny Juzang and Jalen Hill were excluded from the season opener on Wednesday evening due to an injury two hours before UCLA’s tip. The absence of Juzang, known for his offensive skills, and Hill, the team’s second-best returning scorer, left All-American Chris Smith a lot of scoring responsibility in the preseason.
The problem is, Smith was sidelined for much of the game and host San Diego State took advantage of his season opening 73-58 at UCLA in a Viejas Arena that was otherwise empty due to COVID-19 protocols.
The 22nd-seeded Bruins will stay in San Diego for Thanksgiving and will take on Pepperdine (1-0) on Friday at noon.
Smith, the only senior of the Bruins, finished with 10 points (all in the first half) in 27 minutes. When he was on the couch with serious problems, the Bruins struggled offensively.
“Two starters who weren’t there didn’t help,” said UCLA coach Mick Cronin.
San Diego State had two big runs. One in the first half to take charge, and the other in the second half to take it up. The game only had one lead. When Smith picked up a second personal foul and had to stay put, San Diego State went on a 13-2 run that turned the three-point deficit into a 25-21 lead with just under six minutes to go in the first half.
During that stretch, UCLA was 1 to 8 off the field in an eight-minute window, including a four-minute scoring drought.
San Diego State eventually extended the lead to 34-28 at half-time.
In the second half, Smith suffered his fourth personal foul at the attacking end. force Cronin to take him out again. Playing a stifling, disruptive defense, the Aztecs went on a 10-2 run that lifted their lead to 58-42, with 9:20 over. The closest thing to UCLA for the rest of the night was within 13 hours.
Smith eventually dropped out with 4:47 left.
On top of UCLA’s offensive woes, Cronin was disappointed with the team’s defensive performance.
“Our defensive effort, mental and physical, was atrocious,” said Cronin, whose team went 19-12 last season and was picked to win the Pac-12 this season.
“We were physically played out. I’ve been doing this for a long time. … You hit the road and just get beaten up physically like we got beat up, and our defense was horrible. We have not followed the scouting report at all. We got knocked off the dribble, we ran away from shooters, we did amazing things, to be honest. Like, total regression. I don’t know if that comes from hubris – I don’t know where it comes from. But of course I have to solve that immediately. ”
The San Diego State deep roster was certainly a recipe for trouble for the short-handed Bruins.
“We have a lot of depth,” said SDSU coach Brian Dutcher. “We’ve used a lot of guys, 10 guys, and we’re not shedding much. This is perhaps as deep a team as we’ve ever had. UCLA was too short. They missed two players, possibly two starters, so I guess we just got them out. We totally picked them up throughout the game and I think we just wore them to the point where they might be on tired legs at the end of the game. ”
The Aztecs were led by Matt Mitchell and Jordan Schakel, with 15 points each. They each made three 3-pointers, and the Aztecs, chosen to repeat as Mountain West Conference regular season champions, finished 9 for 23 from behind the arc.
Aguek Arop and Terrell Gomez each added 10 points for SDSU, which was 30-2 last season and expected the highest seed ever in the NCAA tournament before being canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Jaime Jaquez Jr. led the Bruins with 17 points and six rebounds. Forward Cody Riley threw in 14 points and 12 rebounds.
“I don’t really care about the statistics and stuff,” said Jaquez Jr. “I’m just playing my best.”
UCLA emphasized a goal of playing faster this season but failed to get the transition game going and had only one quick-break point.
“We couldn’t stop, and when we got a stop, we couldn’t get a rebound,” Cronin said. “There are aspects of the game where we have to be solid and physically strong. We are not a team full of (NBA) lottery choices. ”
One of the most glaring metrics for Cronin was UCLA’s revenue (15) and the number of shots San Diego State brought in. The Aztecs tried 58 shots at UCLA’s 43.
“It was a total setback tonight,” Cronin said, disappointed. “Total Regression.”
Juzang is ruled from week to week with a stress response in his right foot. Hill, a 6-foot-10 swingman, is “day to day” with right knee tendonitis. Hill could play in Friday’s game.
Asked if his players were bothered by the fake noise from the audience in the usually raw Viejas Arena, Cronin said: “The problem wasn’t the crowd noise. The problem was the state of San Diego, their toughness, their execution. ”