It is once again that time of year. Football season is winding down and basketball season is revving up. Soon enough there will be thousands of students lining up outside of Pauley Pavilion waiting three-plus hours just to get inside. Camping out in line will all be worth it to see the basketball team, adorning their fresh Jordan brand jerseys, lacing up their new, clean white kicks, and starting off a season overrun by lofty expectations. After last year’s historic final four-run, the UCLA men’s basketball team is hungry to prove that it wasn’t a fluke.
The 2020-2021 regular season campaign was a tumultuous one in which the Bruins lost All-Conference First Team senior Chris Smith to injury. Additionally, they went on a late losing streak in January and saw themselves get eliminated from the PAC-12 Tournament in the semi-finals to an overperforming Oregon State team. However, UCLA was ready by the time tournament season came around. They ultimately looked like an entirely different team, a team that was firing on all cylinders. A team that was led by Mick Cronin’s impressive coaching and Johnny Juzang’s lights-out shooting. That’s the team that every Bruin fan is anxiously waiting and hoping to see come firing out of the gates this 2021-2022 season.
After only losing two players from last year’s roster, both of which had already been phased out of the Bruin’s roster rotation midway through the season, the Bruins bring back an entire starting lineup and supporting cast that is stacked on paper and full of chemistry. 3rd-year student and floor general Tyger Campbell makes his return to captain last year’s 11th most efficient offense in the nation. Additionally, Campbell looks to lead the team in assist rate (30.2%) again while averaging 13.7 points and 4.7 assists per game in the late stages of the tournament. Campbell’s high level of basketball IQ and ability to control the pace and play of the game make him a valuable asset to the Bruin’s starting five.
Few players in the country will enter this 2021-2022 season as touted as Johnny Juzang himself. After flirting with the idea of entering the NBA draft, Juzang ultimately decided to run it back with the Bruins and the student body couldn’t be more grateful. After an abysmal shooting performance all season, Juzang broke out in the tournament and his hands got hot, falling just four points shy of setting UCLA’s all-time record for most points by an individual in the tournament, 141 versus 137. All eyes are on Juzang this year as the rest of the country wonders if he is capable of leading this Bruins team on yet another deep tournament run as he also vies for the Naismith College Player of the Year honors.
While Johnny Juzang is certainly the star, none of UCLA’s success would be possible without his right-hand man, the team’s leading rebounder Jaime Jacquez Jr. Additionally, Jaime Jaquez led the team in minutes played, starting all 32 games, producing 21 double digit performances and averaging marks of 15.0 points, 6.3 boards, 3.0 assists, and 1.5 steals per game. Jaquez maintained the highest offensive rating on the team and is prepared to be a serious contributor this year as well, hopefully en route to a second final four appearance and maybe a national championship.
After a shaky start to the season offensively, Jules Bernard really kicked into high gear later on. Bernard ended the season with nine double-digit games in the final 12 and helped improve the Bruin’s spacing and defense while providing reliable ball control in place of Campbell and Juzang. In his final season as a Bruin, Bernard hopes to hold on to his starting lineup spot but has a bench with high star recruits eager to take his place.
The Bruin’s center position will almost certainly be filled by Cody Riley, however, he is going to have to perform to keep his starting role. After playing and starting in 31 games last year, after being used in a higher percentage of possessions than anyone else on the roster, and after tallying 19 double-digit nights, Riley has secured his job. However, nobody would be surprised to see Cronin mix up the lineup at some point in this season as he is anxious to debut four-star Rutgers transfer, Myles Johnson. Johnson has become a highly anticipated transfer due to his status as one of the deadliest shooters and rebounders of all Big 10 posts. The recent graduate transfer logged an impressive 68.2% shooting clip while averaging 8 points and 8.5 rebounds. Johnson and Riley will make a very formidable, strong defensively, and reliably offensively center duo.
The Bruins bench and role players are chock full of athletes ready to contribute to the team’s success. David Singleton is ready to serve as an elite shooter and defensive wing for the team. Jake Kyman is prepared to hit his threes and hopefully continue with some of the success he found in big moments his freshman year. Jalen Clark had a very impressive second half of the season. He is emerging as one of the conference’s youngest, best, and most reliable defenders and is said to have improved drastically on offense this offseason. Clark should see an expanded role on this team and will hopefully be able to capitalize on it.
Arguably the most highly anticipated UCLA Bruin would be the incoming recruit, 5 star Peyton Watson. Watson was the highest-ranked basketball player in the state of California and courtesy of his 6’8” stature will be competing for minutes at forward. Watson is expected to be offensively and defensively and is a projected lottery pick in next year’s NBA draft. Hopefully, he is able to restore UCLA’s athletic glory and bring a national championship to Westwood before he is drafted. Additionally, with recent commitments from the class of 2022, the Bruins seem to have success on the basketball horizon. Bringing in two top 20 players from the national rankings, the Bruins will be led by 5-star recruits Amari Bailey and Adem Bona. This wave of success will only further improve UCLA’s commits and lockdown talented players from the class of 2023 and 2024. Mick Cronin and the Bruin’s look to be in the midst of rebuilding the UCLA basketball dynasty and it all starts with this year. Sitting at number 2 on the preseason power rankings and with expectations of a Pac-12 championship and deep tournament run, this season is certainly going to be one for the ages. Four’s Up! Let’s go win a national championship.