As hard as it is to believe, college basketball tips off in just a few days - and to get you ready for the season, Aaron Torres Online will be giving you 30 previews in the coming 30 days to get you ready for the start of the year, written by the Torres Online team.
In case you missed it, we've already previewed the Memphis Tigers, then hit the Illinois Fighting Illini, Wyoming Cowboys, Xavier Musketeers, Michigan State Spartans, Alabama Crimson Tide, Arizona Wildcats, San Diego State Aztecs, UConn Huskies, Texas Longhorns, Auburn Tigers and defending champion Kansas Jayhawks. We also covered Dayton, a Top 25 team at A-10 Media Days
Today, we turn our attention to UCLA: The Bruins have made back-to-back Sweet 16's under Mick Cronin, and despite some personnel losses, this might be Cronin's best team in Westwood so far.
How it went down in 2021-2022
Going into last season, the expectations were through the roof at UCLA. The Bruins were coming off a magical Final Four run in 2021 (one that ended with heartbreak against Gonzaga) and, in a rare twist in modern college basketball, returned all five starters as well.
Still, there was a debate over what was a fair ranking for UCLA, considering that they had made a Final Four as an 11-seed - questions that were quickly put to bed. The Bruins opened the season as the No. 2 ranked team in the country and started 5-0, including a thrilling overtime victory over a Villanova team that ended up making it to the Final Four. UCLA also showed they were capable of going on the road into difficult environments and handling adversity, when they beat Marquette in Milwaukee, in a game whose start time was pushed back because of weather and travel issues.
Unfortunately, some of UCLA’s remaining big games during the non-conference slate were postponed due to COVID-19 protocols, but the Bruins also showed during Pac 12 Conference play they were among the best in the league. UCLA blew out an Arizona team that many labeled as one of the premier teams in the sport, when the Wildcats were ranked No. 3 in the country. That victory was right in the middle of the best stretch of basketball UCLA played all season, when they were able to win six consecutive Pac 12 conference games, following an early loss in overtime loss to Oregon.
Following the first Arizona game the Bruins did take a bit of a dip, losing three of four at one point (including a return game at Arizona) but bounced back nicely late. They won six of their final seven regular season games and advanced to the Pac-12 Championship Game, where they played a thriller which they lost to Arizona, in the team's third meeting of the season.
They returned to the Big Dance as a No. 3 seed, but suffered a heartbreaking loss to North Carolina in the Sweet 16 - in which they led by four with five minutes to go. Had they beaten UNC, the Bruins would've played Saint Peter's to go to the Final Four, but Cronin's club simply couldn't get the stops late needed to beat the Tar Heels.
Overall UCLA finished 27-8, as the Pac-12 runner's up and a play or two away from playing to go to a second straight Final Four.
It was more or less a successful season, but also one that led many Bruins fans wondering "What if."
What You Need To Know About 2022-2023
Key Returnees: Jaime Jaquez Jr., Tyger Campbell, Jaylen Clark, David Singleton, Kenneth Nwuba, Will McClendon, Mac Etienne
Key Losses: Johnny Juzang, Jules Bernard, Cody Riley, Myles Johnson, Peyton Watson, Jake Kyman
Key Transfers: NA
Key Recruits: Amari Bailey, Adem Bona, Dylan Andrews, Abramo Canka
National Title Odds in the Betfred Sportsbook - +1600
Despite losing three of their top five scorers from last year’s Sweet 16 team, this is going to be the most talented roster that Mick Cronin has had during his time in Westwood. There arent many better returning established, proven players than Jamie Jacquez Jr, who is about to kick off his fourth and likely final season in Westwood.
Jacquez arrived at UCLA in the summerof 2019, as an intricate part of Cronin’s first recruiting class. UCLA fans will remember that it was the insertion of Jaquez Jr. into the starting lineup in 2020, which really jump-started UCLA’s winning streak in Cronin's first year and Jaquez has been one of UCLA’s most vital players ever since. Jaquez has started 89 games throughout his college career, scoring over 1100 points and making 83 three pointers, on a 33% clip. This season however will be the first time we see Jaquez as the clear no doubt leader of the squad, following the loss of Juzang and he will be able to handle it.
There were many times last season that Jaquez was the Bruins best and most consistent player. Jaquez had some great performances, including dropping a career high 30 points in UCLA’s road victory at Washington in February and scoring 27 in a narrow triple overtime loss at Arizona State. Jaquez's scoring average has improved each and every year throughout his college career, which is a great sign for a guy that many are expecting to be one of the better players in the sport after having such an impressive season last year. What's even more impressive is that Jacquez did it all on a badly injured ankle that would ultimately require off-season surgery.
Part of what makes the Bruins so appealing this season is that they have a great mix of experience and young talent, which historically has been a great formula, especially for teams that have knocked on the door in years prior. In addition to Jaquez, UCLA will be returning point guard Tyger Campbell, who has been in Westwood longer then both Jaquez and Mick Cronin, as he was originally recruited by former head coach Steve Alford and decided to stick around back in the summer of 2019 rather than leave after the coaching change.
Campbell has played and started in 96 games throughout his college career, and has been the guy with the ball in his hands in just about every game since Mick Cronin took over as Head Coach. Campbell has finished in the Top 5 of the Pac 12 in Assists per game in each of his three seasons, proving he is one of the best passers in the sport. With so many weapons around a playmaking point guard, Campbell could be in for another big season with another year of experience under his belt.
Jaylen Clark will also return and should be on everyone’s list of breakout candidates for this upcoming season. Despite only averaging 6.7 points in 18.1 minutes per game, Clark was vital to UCLA’s success down the stretch of last season playing great defense and being able to guard any position on the floor, even playing some small ball center. Last season Clark was more of a glue guy that could do anything asked of him. This season, his numbers should see a spike with more usage and with more of an opportunity Clark will be able to show everyone how good he really is.
What makes UCLA unique compared to any of the other teams in the Mick Cronin era, is the fact that they should have one of the better freshman classes in the country as well. Headlined by a pair of McDonald's All-Americans, Amari Bailey and Adem Bona, the Bruins had the No. 12 class in the country this past year.
Amari Bailey’s name has been known for a while now, after a very successful high school career at Sierra Canyon. The 6’5” combo guard was the No. 9 ranked player in the high school class per 247 Sports and should be in or a big role for UCLA this season. Bailey should be able to naturally create some offense off the dribble, which is one of the few things UCLA had struggled with in recent years.
CBS Sports’ Jon Rothstein visited UCLA Practice earlier this month, and said Bailey is “simply ridiculous in the mid-range area. Incredible feel for the game. Probes extremely well. Will take immense pressure off Tyger Campbell for UCLA.” With a guy that can naturally create offense by himself, alongside experienced guys that have been through all the wars like Campbell, Jaquez and Clark, this UCLA roster fits together really nicely and should be one of the better teams offensively in the sport this season.
Bailey however won’t be the only impact Freshman that Mick Cronin will bring to Westwood this season, as big man Adem Bona will be a factor as well. Bona averaged 17.7 points, 11 rebounds and 2.5 blocks per game in his first five games at FIBA U20 this summer in Europe. Another one of the few things that UCLA has been missing during all the success they’ve had under Cronin, is an elite shot blocking center that is able to establish his will inside the paint.
With Bona, UCLA now has that and Bona also has the ability to score the basketball. With Bona and Clark leading the way, UCLA’s defense should evolve into another big-time strength for this team, even though it might not come right away. UCLA will also have an under the radar freshman in Dylan Andrews that has gotten rave reviews throughout the summer and is someone that will contribute to the Bruins right away.
The pieces on this Bruins roster fit together better than any of Mick Cronin’s teams during his first three years in Westwood, which should have UCLA fans pumped for what could be a special season.
It was very unfortunate that UCLA’s non-conference schedule was altered last season due to circumstances they had zero control over, including the cancellation of a game against North Carolina in Las Vegas for the CBS Sports Classic.
This year there is no doubt however, that UCLA will have some challenges in the non-conference.
After a few games against the mid-major ranks to open up the season, UCLA will travel to Las Vegas in late November for the Continental Tire Main Event. The Bruins will take on a very good Illinois team that has made each of the last two NCAA Tournaments just like the Bruins, and are projected by many to finish towards the top of the Big Ten (you can read about Illinois in our preview article here). The winner of that one will take on the winner of Virginia-Baylor, meaning that all four teams in that event will begin the season in the AP Top 25. A potential game with Baylor would tell us a lot about UCLA and where they stand early, because Baylor is a team that will be ranked in a similar position with similar expectations to the Bruins.
With the Pac-12 continuing to play 20 conference games, UCLA will have two tough conference tests in December against Oregon and Stanford, two teams that finish in the top half of the Pac 12 Conference.
Before conference play starts back up again in January, UCLA will close out their non-conference slate with two other challenging games. The Bruins will travel to the East Coast in late December when they head to College Park to take on Maryland. The Terps will welcome first year head coach Kevin Willard to town after the end of the Mark Turgeon era ended abruptly. Despite this being Willard's first season in College Park, Maryland has talent and the atmosphere for that one should be very good considering the opponent and just how good UCLA can be this season.
Finally, the Bruins will take on Kentucky in the CBS Sports Classic at Madison Square Garden, after they were not able to compete in the event last season. Kentucky comes into the season ranked No. 4 in the first AP Poll, so this will be another litmus test game for the Bruins to see just how good they really are.
What to Expect in 2022-2023
UCLA has been very impressive in each of Mick Cronin’s first three seasons on the job and that is unlikely to change this season. With Arizona and USC both losing a ton of production from last year’s teams that made the NCAA Tournament, the Pac 12 goes through Westwood until further notice. Although the league should be better and deeper this year compared to recent years past with Stanford, Washington State and Colorado all expecting bounce back seasons, UCLA is the clear team to beat in this league. UCLA will be ranked in the Top 5 of my own personal preseason Top 25 and maybe higher by the time the season starts.
The Bruins have a lot of qualities that we’ve seen teams in years past use to their favor in deep NCAA Tournaments runs. The Bruins are well coached, have an experienced point guard that has been through multiple NCAA Tournaments and have a proven star player at the cllege level in Jacquez. Furthermore, UCLA has a clear breakout candidate in Clark, and freshmen that have the upside to go to the NBA. If all of these things happen as expected, there isn’t a team that possesses as many of these qualities as the Bruins and a second Final Four in two years is a realistic possibility.
However, UCLA has a great combination of experienced players along with freshmen that can develop and improve with more experience playing at the D1 level. If Amari Bailey or Adem Bona really struggles, that doesn’t necessarily mean that UCLA won’t be able to win because they have so many other guys that are capable of picking up the slack.
Considering where this UCLA program was just three years ago, following the depressing end of the Steve Alford era, it is the guy that a lot of people thought wouldn’t fit that has this program absolutely buzzing and the Bruins right on the precipice of winning at the highest levels of the sport
Catch up on the other teams in our countdown
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