one year ago, University of California Basketball was a beacon of stability. The Bruins were off on a surprising trip to the 2021 Finals, and they lost none of their lower tier men to NBA Draft or turn portal. Sadly, stability gave way to chaos in December, when the COVID-19 outbreak forced the team to shut down for 27 days. The hiatus finally ended on January 6, but the Bruins’ injuries continued.
Despite it all, the Bruins recovered to win seven of their last nine regular season games and reach the Pac-12 Final (where they lost to Arizona). They were three points ahead with two minutes to play in Sweet 16 against North Carolina Before the loss, 73-66. “It hasn’t been a smooth year by any means,” says UCLA coach Mick Cronin. “But in the end it was a really good year.”
UCLA has faced quite a bit of roster turnover in a poor season, but Cronin happily accepts that if it means more health and stability in the coming months. The Bruins lost two of their top three scorers 6-6 in the junior guard Johnny Jouzang (who announced the NBA but went without wording) and 6-6 senior guards Jules Bernard, in addition to four other players who witnessed important minutes. But there is arguably more collective talent on this list, thanks to the arrival of a new announced chapter. If the Bruins can avoid the turmoil that plagued them last season, they will return straight to the National Championship.
“We have a lot of talented new students, and we have some guys ready to play bigger roles,” Cronin says. “This is a lot different than it has been in the last couple of years, but it’s also fun to work in. I’m excited to see how it goes.”
If there’s one thing we’ve learned in the past two years, it’s that upheavals are hard to predict. Regardless, the degree to which UCLA “operates” this season will depend on how the team answers these five pressing questions:
Can Tiger Campbell And Amary Bailey cohabiting?
A seasoned, caged, clutch, and efficient point guard is a rare luxury in college basketball, Cronin has reason to be excited about Campbell’s return for his first season. Since losing his first season to an ACL injury, the 5-foot-11-point guard from Iowa State has started each of his 96 games for the Bruins. Campbell has been called the All-Pac-12 first team for the past two years, and last season he dramatically increased his 3-point shot to 41 percent while posting a best 3.31 assist-to-turnover ratio.
“One of the things I learned a long time ago is that when you have return guards, you have a chance to be good,” Cronin says. “His main problem was consistency because he had to play such tough minutes. My challenge against Tyger is to be great in every game. If he does that, he will be one of the best keepers in America.”
Many of Campbell’s passes have gone to Juzang, an effective winger for catching and shooting. Playing alongside Billy will require a mod. The new 6-5 McDonald’s All-American guard out of Sierra Canyon High School in Southern California was the highest-rated recruit (No. 9, at 247Sports Composite) who signed Cronin during his time at Westwood. Bailey is an athlete and dynamic playmaker, but like Campbell he needs the ball in his hands to be effective. “Amari can really create an attack out of dribbling,” Cronin says. “His future in the NBA is a stepping stone. Becoming a shooter in constant surroundings will be an area of improvement for him, and it is something we have worked hard for this summer.”
Most coaches would like to have this level of talent in the backcourt, but it is always difficult to combine two goalkeepers who control the ball. This is a first-class problem for sure, but one that Cronin thinks will work on its own. “In today’s game, you have to have many ball players,” he says. “This way you won’t have to write a text to insult as much. You just have to make sure there are good spacing.”
Can this gang shoot straight?
The Bruins are so lucky David Singleton He decided to go back to his senior year. Besides providing much-needed veteran leadership, the 6-4 Ranger ranked second in the conference in 3-point shooting at 46.3 percent.
However, Singleton has only played 16.7 minutes per match and is unlikely to see his minutes increase dramatically. That’s because UCLA will likely replace Juzang and Bernard in the starting line-up with Bailey and a 6-5 junior guard. Jaylyn ClarkNeither of them has been proven to be surrounding shooters. Clarke was named last season for the Pac-12 defensive team, but he’s only achieved 24.3 percent behind the arc in the past two seasons. He missed six matches in January and February due to multiple concussions, but when he was healthy he showed flashes of potential as a scorer. During three matches extended in February against Washington StateAnd the Washington And the Arizona, Clark averaged 19.7 points and 8.3 rebounds, and shot 3 of 8 from a 3-point range. “With the consistent minutes, you’ll see him produce a lot on the offensive end,” Cronin says.
It would be a real game changer then Jaime Jaques Jr. He rediscovers his far-reaching touch. The 6-6 senior goalkeeper averaged 13.9 points, 5.7 rebounds and 2.3 assists last season, but his 3-point percentage slipped from 39.4 percent as a sophomore to 27.6 percent. Much of that was due to a pair of severely sprained ankles he had sustained over the past two months. Jaquez gets a lot of attention on the All-America show pre-season, and without Juzang he’d be the undisputed face on the show. “For me, he’s the National Player of the Year candidate,” Cronin says. “It’s a luxury to have a star who has the mentality of a sticky guy. He dives for loose balls, he bounces and he defends.”
If he shoots outdoor shots as well, UCLA will be much more difficult to beat.
Is Adam Bona elite?
UCLA has some lethal weapons in the traditional Cronin attack of four guards, but they will need Bona, the new striker from Nigeria 6-10 via Turkey, to play hard in the middle. If his performance over the summer at the FIBA European Championships in Montenegro is any indication, it probably will. Bona led the championship in rebounds (10.9) and blocks (2.4), and was sixth in scoring (17.0) while shooting 66.2 percent from the ground.
Bona played two years at Prolific Prep in Napa, California, and was selected as the McDonald’s All-American. It’s sporty dynamic, powerful drenching and a strong rim guard. If he was really that good – if he was really an elite – that would make a huge difference. “It’s a dipping machine, and it’s just a ball of energy,” Cronin says. “He reminds me of Amare’ Stoudamire with his athleticism and energy level. He’s more effective offensively from 15 feet and on the inside than I’ve known. He has shown me a lot this summer. He has a chance to be an outstanding player.”
How would the global flavor taste?
In the past, a “foreign player” at UCSD was defined as someone who grew up outside of California. But as international opportunities continue to pour into college basketball, Cronin is determined to launch a broader network. So when Michael Lewis was appointed to be the head coach at ball country This past spring, Cronin took the lead as assistant coach to Ivo Simovic, of Belgrade, Serbia, who had spent the past four years as an assistant at Loyola Maryland. Simovic has club experience in Serbia and Spain and previously worked as an international scout for the San Antonio Spurs. It was the reason why the Greyhounds were able to recruit Santi Checkers, the 6-11 Spain striker who was selected in the first round of the 2021 NBA Draft and now plays for the Memphis Grizzlies.
The rent was paid in August, when Simovic helped the Bruins acquire Abramo Kanka, a new goalkeeper from Italy aged 6-7. Cronin still has a scholarship to apply, and there’s a good chance another international import will arrive in time to enroll in the school this fall. “We definitely hired him with international hiring in mind,” Cronin says of Simovic. “To say he is on good contact is an understatement. He is a great guy and a good coach. We couldn’t be happier with the addition.”
How will Bruins perform in chemistry?
UCLA is one of the premiere academic institutions in the world, but the players’ ability to win their chemistry class on the field will be the ultimate factor in how far this team goes in March.
Like the starting lineup, the bench is a mix of old and new. Singleton is probably the sixth man, but the 6-2, new guard Dylan Andrews, a Los Angeles native who played his first year at Compass Prep in Arizona, will be considered for spelling Campbell and Bailey at this point. Cronin compares Andrews to former UCLA guard Darren Collison. “He’s a 94-foot defender, probably as fast as any goalkeeper I’ve had as a head coach,” Cronin says.
With last year’s centers, Cody Riley And the Miles JohnsonAfter moving, the big backup role falls Kenneth Noba, 6-10 is a great striker from Nigeria. This is, we must say, a tough task for a player who played just 6.4 minutes per game last season, but it looks like Nouba is ready to take the next step. “He may have grown more than any of our guys out there,” Cronin says. “He’s at the best of his career.”
Kanka (pronounced “Zanka”) is just a rookie, but his extensive international experience playing against older, more physically strong players has prepared him to contribute directly to the winger.
The rotation could also include two other reserves that have been laid off for a long time. Mac Etienne, 6-10 striker, was re-ranked out of high school in December 2020. He played sparingly in the second half of that season and then tore up the AFC Champions League in October. “The Mac is better offensively at the moment,” Cronin says. “He’s gained a lot of strength in his upper body, so it comes down to how long it takes him to get his legs back.”
Will McClendon, a 6-3 rookie from Las Vegas, also missed the entirety of last season due to a ruptured ACL. He lost his last year of high school to the pandemic, so it’s been a full two years since he played in games. Prior to that, McClendon won three Nevada state titles at Bishop Gorman High School in Las Vegas.
Overall, UCLA has more unknowns than we’re used to seeing, but the potential—and expectations—of this program are still high. The talent is there to win a national championship, but the Bruins won’t be able to take that final step unless they master all the little steps between now and then. “I’m a big cultural guy,” Cronin says. “I know we won’t win unless we come together as a team.”
(Top photo by Amari Bailey: Steph Chambers/Getty Images)