Assorted Thoughts As UCLA Heads Into Postseason Play
Looking back at preseason expectations and setting the stage for what could be a wild postseason ride.
The regular season is officially over. On Sunday the UCLA Bruins found out their postseason fate, earning a #2 seed in the West region and some favorable locations for a potential run to the Final Four.
I wanted to start by looking back at the expectations I set for the season way back at the beginning of November, starting with the baseline ones.
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UCLA gets a split in both of their big non-conference sets (Continental Tires Main Event and the East Coast road trip).
The Bruins sit in the top three throughout Pac-12 play, with a chance to win the conference heading into the final two weeks of the season.
A top four seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Overall, not bad! The Bruins technically got the first one (they ended up going 0-2 and 2-0 on those trips, which I guess would count for a split), and absolutely nailed the second and third expectations. Now to shift over to my optimistic predictions.
UCLA wins the Continental Tires Main Event. They handle Illinois well and I think the proximity to home (the tournament is in Las Vegas) gives them an edge over Baylor or Virigina. Maybe what’s most important is that they can match up with Baylor athletically, which I would not have said would be the case in years past.
UCLA wins the conference. They’ve put together really good teams but faltered when it came to the finish line, and at some point Mick Cronin is going to need to put it all together. Might as well be this year.
Top two seed in the NCAA Tournament. Just like last year, I think Gonzaga will have the top seed in the West locked up unless something crazy happens, but the Bruins should be more than capable of getting one of those top two seed spots (though I will compromise and take a 3rd seed in the West as well).
Let it be said that sometimes I am very off. I did not expect UCLA to need as much ramp-up time as they ultimately needed, which would have changed that early prediction, but I did nail the second one. I also got the third one to an extent, with the Bruins earning a #2 seed and in the West, though I thought Gonzaga wouldn’t have taken as big a step back as they did this year (which is not to say they aren’t good, which we’ll get to in a bit).
The point of this exercise is to state that, hey, UCLA had a really good year this year! I think sometimes we get lost in the pursuit of a championship that we forget to enjoy what we have in front of us.
I did not really talk about this here, but I made sure to be in attendance for both of UCLA’s final home games this season. It didn’t matter that our seats were up in the nosebleeds (quite literally, our tickets for the Arizona game were in the very back row of our section), I just wanted to soak in the energy and show appreciation for what this team has given the fanbase. UCLA fans have had to endure some miserable years prior to Mick Cronin’s arrival, but he has fully delivered on the promise of making UCLA basketball exciting again. The ultimate irony here is that Cronin has done so by taking the Bruins back to the days of Ben Ball, just combined with a better offense. Pundits have long derided UCLA as a place where you need a flashy offense to succeed, but that could not be further from the truth; all you need to succeed at UCLA is a winning culture.
Going back to my preseason expectations, I haven’t mentioned the last one from both sets of predictions:
An appearance in the Sweet Sixteen.
I’ve mentioned before that I think getting to the Sweet Sixteen should be the baseline goal for any UCLA season at this point just due to the changing nature of the sport. The 2022-2023 season especially has been full of parity, to the point where I would say that there is no singular standout team but over a dozen that could make a realistic claim to being a national title contender. If you make the Sweet Sixteen, you get to be in that conversation, and past that point is a coin flip.
The good news is that UCLA has a relatively easy path to the Sweet Sixteen. Their first-round matchup against UNC Asheville should not be a major challenge; the Bulldogs won the Big South Conference handily and finished 146th in KenPom, but have only faced three teams all season that were ahead of them in those rankings. The Bulldogs went 1-2 in those games, notching a double-overtime victory over UCF to start the year but getting blown out by Dayton and Arkansas respectively. This feels like a great opportunity for the younger Bruins to get their feet wet and get acclimated to the tournament.
Their potential second-round opponent is intriguing. Northwestern is the higher seed and likely the favorite, but there’s a lot of noise throughout their resume. This is a team that swept Indiana and has a victory over Purdue, but also has some strange losses (getting blown out by Pitt and Ohio State on your home court? Not a great look!) and their efficiency numbers set them up as a team that would not match up favorably with what UCLA wants to do. The Wildcats have an offense outside the top 100, which does not seem ideal going against a team that made even a top 5 offense like Arizona look bad on multiple occasions, and their calling card is slow pace and defense, something UCLA just does much better.
On the flip side, they could also face Boise State, which would not be much of an upset. KenPom has the Bronces fairly underseeded, as they’re ranked 31st in KenPom and have the resume of something closer to an eighth seed. By comparison, Northwestern is fairly overseeded here, as they rank 42nd in KenPom, one ahead of Nevada and one behind an Oregon team that was not even in consideration for the tournament following their loss to the Bruins this past week. Boise has a solid victory over Colorado and a completely-inexplicable thrashing of Texas A&M from earlier in the season, but they also have bad losses to South Dakota State, Charlotte, and San Jose State, so who can say for sure. Much like Northwestern, however, their statistical profile does not look to match them up well with the Bruins.
That would take us to the Sweet Sixteen, and while there are a number of fun options that could be here, including a third matchup with Bobby Hurley and Arizona State, a bit of a sliding door “what if?” scenario with Jamie Dixon and TCU, and a potential hate bowl with Steve Alford’s Nevada, there is one name that clearly stands at the top: Gonzaga. There is so much NCAA Tournament history between these two schools in the 21st century, from Heartbreak City to the 2021 Final Four clash that will go down as one of the best games in NCAA Tournament history. This game would feature plenty of familiar faces from that clash, from Jaime Jaquez and Tyger Campbell to Drew Timme, but it would also be one hell of a game. UCLA is entering the NCAA Tournament with the #1 defense in the country according to KenPom, while Gonzaga is entering with the #1 offense. Something is going to give here, and while the Bulldogs have become a trendy pick to come out of the West region, UCLA definitely has a puncher’s chance, and you have to like UCLA’s chances of feeding off that underdog mentality.
Before I finish up with the men, I did want to take some time to shout out the UCLA women’s basketball team, which went from unranked in the preseason to grabbing a #4 seed and hosting their pod for the first and second rounds. That’s an impressive accomplishment considering how young and inexperienced this team is; during their Pac-12 Tournament final against Washington State, the broadcast mentioned that around 55% of the points scored by the Bruins this year were by freshmen, and when you throw in Emily Bessoir having missed the previous season due to a torn ACL, this was a very young team.
The word was always that UCLA was going to be a really good team…in 2023-2024. Yes, the Bruins will likely lose Charisma Osborne after this season, who could theoretically use a COVID year to return but is a potential top-10 pick in the WNBA draft, but everyone else should be back (I’m actually not sure about Gina Conti and whether she has a COVID year still or not, but that would be the only case). But that has not been the case - the Bruins have been fairly good all season long. They’ve been a bit inconsistent, as to be expected considering the youth involved, but they managed to get a huge proof-of-concept win during the Pac-12 Tournament when they finally knocked off Stanford.
The Bruins should have a good shot at making the Sweet Sixteen - Sacramento State will likely not prove to be much of a roadblock, and while Oklahoma could be a difficult matchup, the Bruins will have the advantage of being at home on their side. Their potential Sweet Sixteen matchup seems pretty daunting, as they drew into South Carolina’s region, but this team likely won’t shy away from the moment simply because they already played the Gamecocks on the road this year, and that game was tied going into the 4th quarter before South Carolina ultimately pulled away. No matter what, though, it’s hard to see this season as anything other than a success, and a great step forward in what is a make-or-break series of years for head coach Cori Close.
Hey, how long have you been a lifelong Arizona State fan? UCLA fans have certainly been rooting for the Sun Devils in three of their last four games, and they will undoubtedly be rooting for them today when they face a Nevada program led by former UCLA head coach Steve Alford.
I actually think Arizona State is a team UCLA fans should be rooting for. Even considering the karmic joy we would all feel for watching an Alford team flame out in the tournament, Arizona State has the kind of high-variance play that can take out a few potential issues for the Bruins en route to the Final Four. They have a flamethrower in Desmond Cambridge who can get incredibly hot, perhaps hot enough to shoot the Sun Devils past TCU (a great defensive team but one prone to offensive failures) and Gonzaga (a great offensive team that can get consistently blown up defensively). UCLA fans would certainly love to see the Sun Devils over any of the other options in the Sweet Sixteen, especially given how UCLA has consistently played against Bobby Hurley’s squad. You’d feel good about the Bruins advancing in that scenario.
Ok, let’s talk about injuries.
UCLA finally came out and said what everyone had long suspected: Jaylen Clark is out for the rest of the year. The exact nature of Clark’s injury is still unknown, and likely won’t be known until the season officially ends, but Mick Cronin reportedly let the committee know that Clark would not be returning prior to Selection Sunday so that injury was already baked into the calculus. The good news here is that the Bruins did not look noticeably worse on defense without him during the Pac-12 Tournament, especially with Amari Bailey stepping up his game on both ends, so perhaps the Bruins can weather that particular storm.
More of a concern is the injury suffered by Adem Bona during the win over Oregon that kept him out of the Pac-12 Tournament Finals. Bona’s status for this week is still unknown. Mick Cronin mentioned before and after the Arizona game that Bona would likely be back for this week’s games, and we do know from the UCLA Basketball Twitter account that he did indeed make the trip to Sacramento and was not seen in a sling, which is a positive. Still, I would not be surprised if Bona was held out of the game against UNC Asheville for precautionary reasons, especially if things get out of hand.
Heading into the season, I would have ranked Bona second on the list of players that UCLA could not afford to have suffered an injury, simply because the depth on the interior was not great (if you’re wondering, Tyger Campbell was first on the list, and Clark was 4th behind Jaime Jaquez). We got a glimpse of what UCLA’s depth looks like without Bona during the game against Arizona, and while Kenneth Nwuba and Mac Etienne played admirably, it was very clear that UCLA was at a disadvantage with both players compared to what Bona brings on both ends of the court. Defensively, both Nwuba and Etienne can hold up well against lesser competition but are prone to fouling against size, and they lack the quickness and athleticism that allows Bona to recover quickly and be an excellent help defender. On offense, both Nwuba and Etienne lack the offensive skillset to contribute meaningfully, putting more pressure on the guards and wings to win what is essentially a 4v5 situation. Bona, meanwhile, has developed a decent post game and is an excellent rim runner, giving opposing defenses an extra element to think about.
UCLA can survive without Jaylen Clark. Clark is a preternatural off-ball defender, perhaps the best in the country, but the UCLA defense did not show any noticeable drop-off without him during the tournament and in fact improved offensively, as the loss of Clark opened the floor up more for Amari Bailey to be a slasher while having a more consistent outside threat in David Singleton on the floor more often. A potential loss of Bona on top of that would be disastrous, however. Even though he is still raw in many aspects, Bona provides positive play at a position that the Bruins lack depth in, and while they can play high-end teams close without Bona (see: the Arizona game), Bona’s presence raises both the floor and ceiling for the team.
Again, the worry about Bona could all be a moot point. His shoulder injury could have been nothing more than a nasty stinger that got better with some rest. But until he gets back on the court and plays close to the level he was at prior to the injury, UCLA fans are going to sit around and worry.
One last thing before I go.
Two Saturdays ago, we celebrated the accomplishments of UCLA’s senior class. Jaime Jaquez, Tyger Campbell, David Singleton, Kenneth Nwuba, and Russell Stong all took the court while the UCLA fans celebrated their accomplishments. It was an emotional moment, the kind that any player who puts on the four letters dreams of.
But maybe more importantly, this is the last ride for a group of seniors that have left an indelible mark on one of the most historic programs in the nation. UCLA was a floundering brand when they came in, stuck on a treadmill going to nowhere. Combined with coach Mick Cronin, this group has made the Sweet Sixteen in every NCAA Tournament that has taken place since they arrived, made a Final Four appearance, and won the Pac-12 regular season. Even beyond those accomplishments, this group has helped to breathe life into a moribund program, reviving it from the negative environment it had been stuck in to becoming one with legitimate fan enthusiasm. No matter how this NCAA Tournament run goes, this group has etched its place in UCLA lore.
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