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Maryland men’s basketball at UCLA preview

The Terps head to the West Coast to face a future conference opponent.

Cal Tobias/Testudo Times

Maryland men’s basketball (7-4, 1-1 Big Ten) is headed to Los Angeles, where a blue blood awaits. The Terps will face UCLA on Friday, the second and final leg of a home-and-home agreement that began last year.

Coppin State, Maryland’s final nonconference opponent, is one of the worst teams in Division I, so this will be the Terps’ last chance to tune themselves up against high-level competition before Big Ten play awaits.

Friday’s game will tip off at 9 p.m. ET and air on ESPN2.

UCLA Bruins (5-5, 0-0 Pac-12)

2022-23 record: 31-6, 18-2 Pac-12

For the most part, UCLA has found significant success in its five seasons under Mick Cronin. An unexpected run to the Final Four in 2021 was followed by back-to-back Sweet 16 appearances, with last year’s squad winning the Pac-12. That team also walked into College Paek and handed Maryland its only home loss of the season — by 35 points, no less. The Bruins are one of, if not the most successful college basketball programs of all time, so the standard is understandably quite high in Westwood.

So far this season, that standard hasn’t been met. UCLA is just 5-5 on the season, and while losses to the likes of Marquette, Gonzaga, Villanova and Ohio State away from Pauley Pavilion are reasonable even for solid teams, the Bruins recently had their 29-game home winning streak snapped by Cal State Northridge. They enter Friday on a three-game losing streak, and could put themselves seriously behind the 8-ball if Maryland extends that losing spell in UCLA’s final nonconference game.

The Terps, however, have been putrid away from home under Kevin Willard. Something’s got to give in this Friday night showdown between future conference foes.

Players to watch

Adem Bona, sophomore forward, 6-foot-10, No. 3 — Bona has been UCLA’s most productive all-around player this season, averaging 12.5 points, 6.7 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game. A traditional around-the-rim big man, Bona moves well for his size and showcases outstanding athleticism. He had 14 points against Maryland last season.

Sebastian Mack, freshman guard, 6-foot-3, No. 12 — Mack leads the team in scoring with an average of 15 points per game, although his workload has been quite high. He’s taken double-digit shots in all but two games, and his scoring hasn’t been particularly efficient. Even so, the four-star freshman has adjusted well to the college game and offers a significant boost on the offense end.

Lazar Stefanovic, junior forward, 6-foot-7, No. 10 — In his first season with UCLA, Stefanovic is an older presence in a youthful lineup. His scoring average has dropped slightly, to 10.9 points per game, but he’s still giving UCLA six rebounds and 1.5 assists per contest. He’s played 88 percent of available minutes this season.

Strength

Defense. The Bruins have found definitive success on the defensive end this season, having allowed their opponent to score 70 points in only two games this year. Kenpom.com ranks UCLA’s defense as the 26th-most efficient in the nation. UCLA also has the No. 21 ranked opponent non-steal turnover rate in Division I, meaning its pressure forces opponents to give the ball away at a remarkably high rate.

Weakness

Experience. UCLA has no shortage of talent, but what it lacks is experience. Of the 12 players to have scored for the Bruins this year, 10 are underclassmen. The Bruins usually start at least three underclassmen, with their most frequently used starting five featuring four players with one or fewer years of college basketball under their belts.

After the team’s loss to Cal State Northridge, Cronin fired back when asked about his roster construction. “We did what we could do. Is your question, ‘Did we try to get older transfers?’ Absolutely,” he said. “So did the Reds, but the Dodgers get them.”

Three things to watch

1. Streaks on the line. UCLA no longer has its nation-leading home winning streak, so now it has to try and snap a losing spell that has put a dent in its resume. Maryland, meanwhile, is looking to win its first game away from home this year and build on a three-game winning streak.

2. Scott’s emergence. Much was made of Maryland forward Donta Scott’s early-season struggles, but his impressive 15-point performance against Nicholls State offered hope that he is on an upward trajectory. If he has a strong game, Maryland’s chances improve exponentially.

3. Future Big Ten battle. Ahead of last year’s matchup between these two teams, Willard joked that the novelty of scheduling a West Coast opponent was diminished when UCLA and USC announced they were joining the Terps in the Big Ten. This matchup offers a preview of the new-look coast-to-coast league.