LOS ANGELES (AP)After a rocky start under new coach Mick Cronin, UCLA got on a roll that had the Bruins anticipating a berth in the NCAA Tournament. Then came an abrupt ending, with the season canceled in mid-March because of the novel coronavirus.
After stumbling through a 1-6 stretch that included a 1-3 start in Pac-12 play, from mid-January through early March, the Bruins went 11-3 with a seven-game league winning streak. Overall, they finished 19-12 and second in the Pac-12 at 12-6. They went into the final day of the regular season with a shot to claim at least a share of the title.
”We had growing pains in the beginning,” guard Chris Smith said, ”but we had some momentum and were on a roll at the end of the season.”
Cronin earned Pac-12 coach of the year honors and Smith was named first team All-Pac-12.
Jake Kyman, the team’s leading 3-point shooter last season, said it took awhile, but the Bruins have fully bought into Cronin’s approach.
”Now we actually know what he wants,” Kyman said. ”Now we’re comfortable with each other and know what the deal is.”
No. 22 UCLAheads into this season familiar with Cronin’s defensive-minded system yet still mindful of last season. The Bruins are ranked in the AP Top 25 for the first time in two years, and first under Cronin.
”People counted us out from the beginning, so we’re going to try to keep that same chip on our shoulder,” guard Jaime Jaquez Jr. said.
UCLA’s reworked schedule has yet to be finalized. A highlight game will be Dec. 19, when the Bruins face No. 10 Kentucky in the CBS Sports Classic in Cleveland.
After flirting with the NBA draft, Smith and Jalen Hill each decided to return for another season. Smith, the team’s lone senior, averaged 13.1 points and 5.4 rebounds last season. He could contend for league player of the year honors. ”To be able to come back and become a better player for the next level, it felt like it was a no-brainer,” Smith said. Hill, a junior forward-center, was an all-league honorable mention. He averaged nine points and team-highs in rebounding (6.9) and field-goal percentage (53.3). Hill’s frontcourt mate, junior Cody Riley, had his best performances over the last season’s final four games, when he scored in double figures.
Tyger Campbell was the only player to start all 31 games last year, averaging 8.3 points and five assists, most among the Pac-12’s returners. Jaquez was close behind, starting 23 games and averaging 8.9 points and 4.8 rebounds. ”Jaime’s secret weapon is his toughness, he just keeps coming at you,” Cronin said. ”That was the toughness level he gave us last year and he really helped his teammates come up to his level of toughness.” Their presence, along with returnee David Singleton, give the Bruins plenty of depth in the backcourt. Singleton is expected to get minutes at backup point guard. ”Dave is looking really great,” Jaquez said. ”He’s really getting good at controlling the game and making the defense play at his pace, being a real floor general.”
Johnny Juzang is back home after playing sparingly as a freshman at Kentucky. The guard spurned UCLA’s offer coming out of high school in Los Angeles, but will be able to play right away for the Bruins. His 3-point shooting should boost an offense in need of more consistency from the perimeter. ”Johnny is a ready-made product for us,” Cronin said. ”He has the mind of a senior. He gives us leadership. He knows all our guys and fits in seamlessly.”
The Bruins need a presence in the post after Alex Olesinski graduated and Shareef O’Neal transferred to LSU to follow in the footsteps of his Hall of Fame father Shaquille O’Neal. Hill and Cody Riley, who averaged 8.8 points on 52% shooting while starting 17 games last year, will be joined by Kenneth Nwuba. He redshirted last year to work on his development. Riley had his best performances over UCLA’s last four games, when he averaged in double figures.
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