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UCLA Men's Basketball 2022-2023 Season Preview: Bruins Cooking Up a Special Run
Coach Mick Cronin is really cooking with gasoline now.
It feels like just yesterday I was writing about the end of UCLA’s basketball season, taking a look at what had happened and trying to make sense of it all. Yet much like the salmon of Capistrano, it is time for us all to instinctively flock back to Pauley Pavilion and take a closer look at coach Mick Cronin’s program as he heads into his 4th season at the helm of the team.
We’re going to break down who’s gone, who’s returning, who’s new, and what to look for this season.
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For what feels like the first time in the Mick Cronin era, the Bruins are experiencing a good amount of roster turnover. Three starters from last year’s team are now gone, with wings Johnny Juzang and Jules Bernard both gone along with center Cody Riley. Gone too are backup center Myles Johnson and backup wing Peyton Watson. Watson was drafted in the first round of the NBA Draft by the Denver Nuggets and has seen some minutes in mop-up duty so far, while Juzang signed a two-way contract with the Utah Jazz. Bernard is signed to the Detroit Pistons’ G-League team, while Riley is playing professional ball in Slovenia. Johnson decided against continuing his basketball career and is focused on completing his master’s degree.
Despite those losses, the Bruins will be returning two of their main pieces from last year, with Tyger Campbell and Jaime Jaquez Jr. both choosing to come back for their senior years. Jaquez likely would have been drafted after last season, but the various injuries he suffered throughout the season hurt his draft stock, and he would have been a 2nd-round pick at best. Instead, he comes back as the best player on a team with national championship aspirations and with a host of preseason recognition. Campbell was in a similar boat, except his height made an NBA dream even less likely. That said, his shooting has improved considerably and if he can show that it wasn’t a fluke, he might have an outside shot (pun intended) of sticking at the next level.
Joining those two in the starting lineup this year will be the fully-ascendent Jaylen Clark. Clark made the Pac-12’s All-Defense 1st Team last year despite only averaging 18.1 minutes per game, a testament to his defensive prowess, but his other numbers all saw a bump as well. We should expect a similar increase in his numbers this year, and his addition to the starting lineup should help improve UCLA’s overall defense.
In reserve, David Singleton is returning for one last year with the Bruins. Singleton likely could have transferred to a host of other schools but is sticking around for his last year of eligibility, with rumors stating that he wants to get into coaching following the season. I could see him sticking around as a grad assistant next year, and he seems to be taking in his role as the veteran hand rather well, as he’s one of the guys the freshmen have mentioned as helping them adjust to the next level. Kenneth Nwuba should also have an increased role this season, being one of the primary backups at the center. Nwuba showed he could play spot minutes against higher-level opponents the past few years, and has transformed his body to the point that the Bruins should feel confident in his ability to provide 10-15 minutes a game.
Finally in returning players, the Bruins have Mac Etienne and Will McClendon, both of whom sat out last year due to injury. Word is that Etienne should be ready to go sometime in November, while McClendon won’t be ready until December. That also fits in with how much I expect each guy to be used - Etienne has seen the floor before and will likely be eased into a reserve spot down low, while McClendon likely won’t be counted on for much this season after having missed over a year of development time.
This section has to start with Amari Bailey, the best prospect UCLA has brought in since Lonzo Ball. A consensus top-10 high school player from Sierra Canyon, Bailey is everything you want from a Mick Cronin recruit - high motor, selfless, get-after-it kind of player who doesn’t shy away from the moment. Bailey has openly embraced Cronin’s focus on defense and hard work, which is rare for a player of his caliber, but a great sign for how Cronin isn’t going to sacrifice what he wants in a player to chase stars. The question for Bailey is going to be his ability to score at this level; Bailey is more of a slashing guard than a shooter, and while his athleticism absolutely plays up here, he’ll need to show a greater degree of offensive capability, both to realize his NBA potential and for UCLA to unlock their offense even further.
However, Bailey isn’t the incoming freshman that has me the most excited. That honor goes to Adem Bona, the 6-10 center from Prolific Prep in California. Bona came in as the 15th best player in the country and second-best from the state, giving UCLA the top two California players (always a good thing). Bona is from Nigeria originally and did not start playing basketball until he was 13, but you can see why he made the switch from soccer. He’s a freaky athlete who really excels on the defensive end, showing off an impressive amount of hustle and a preternatural ability to block shots; he had five blocks in the exhibition against Concordia last week. Only Jaylen Clark and Tyger Campbell graded out better defensively than Bona did in the exhibition, and he gives the Bruins the defensive anchor they’ve been lacking since the late Jalen Hill left the program. His offensive game is lacking - he can throw down a lob but getting him the ball on the interior is more of a work in progress - but that’s not a big concern for the Bruins at the moment, and they can afford to bring him along slowly on that front.
The third part of UCLA’s excellent recruiting class is Dylan Andrews. Andrews might be less-heralded than his peers but could have the biggest impact on the program going forward, as he’s a true point guard prospect, something the Bruins have been missing the last few years. Yes, they have Tyger Campbell, but that’s been about it, with the Bruins having to rely on less-than-ideal options like David Singleton or Jules Bernard to give Campbell a breather. Andrews finally gives Cronin a legitimate reserve option at the point guard spot, and will likely be the guy taking over that spot for the next few years. Maybe the best sign for Andrews this year is, of all the freshmen that played during the exhibition, he looked the most composed, running the offense smoothly, getting after things defensively, and showing off a shooting stroke that should keep him on the floor. Andrews has a pretty high ceiling, and he’ll be allowed to grow this year without having the burden of being great out of the gate.
Finally we have Abramo Canka, a forward from Istituto Paritario "G. Papi" in Italy. Canka was a late addition to the Bruins, brought on as one of the first catches for new assistant Ivo Simovic out of Europe. Canka has a lot of international experience, having played for Italy’s national team at various levels, and we saw in the exhibition that he has some talent and feel for the game. That said, he did not arrive until late in the summer, so he’s further behind than some of the other freshmen. He’ll likely get plenty of time during the nonconference to get acclimated, but I expect Canka to contribute a lot more in the coming years.
UCLA has settled into a solid scheduling situation under Mick Cronin, using the nonconference slate to develop depth against inferior competition while weaving in a few high-level opponents that will pad out the resume for March. This year is no different, with an added caveat that UCLA is playing more than a few lower DI teams that won their conferences last year in the process. Long Beach State won the Big West and Norfolk State won the MEAC, giving UCLA some early tests against teams that won’t shrink in the spotlight. Then you head into the Continental Tire Main Event, where UCLA will play Illinois and then either Baylor or Virginia. I like UCLA’s chances against Illinois, and then I’d consider them a toss-up against either Baylor or Virginia (though I like their chances more against Virginia if given the choice).
The Bruins then get a couple of easier games before playing two conference matchups, going on the road to Stanford and then home against Oregon. It’s not the best draw for a UCLA team still trying to develop - Oregon is perhaps the best non-UCLA team in the conference, and Stanford has a ton of experience - but I do like the Bruins’ chances in both games. I’m fully on board the “Jerod Haase is a bad coach” train, and experience can only go so far against talent (especially when that talent also has experience), so I still like UCLA to win up in Palo Alto. Getting Oregon at home early is a huge break - if this game were up in Eugene early, I would give it to the Ducks in a heartbeat, but playing them at home gives UCLA an edge.
After a tune-up game against Denver, the Bruins will head to the east coast for two games. First they’ll face future Big Ten conference-mate Maryland under new coach Kevin Willard. I think the Terrapins did the right thing in finally moving on from Mark Turgeon, and I think Willard will get things going for that program, but this is the kind of game UCLA has gotten up for under Cronin. Then they head up to Madison Square Garden to face Kentucky in the CBS Sports Classic. UCLA really has gotten the best of John Calipari and Kentucky in recent years, but it’s hard to say they’ll get them early here - the Wildcats have a veteran team for once, led by returning player of the year Oscar Tshiebwe, and might spend the entire season playing mad after their embarassing exit from the NCAA Tournament this past year.
At this point, we’re fully in Pac-12 season, and I’ll be honest and say there really isn’t a team that frightens me in this bunch. Part of it is that I’m not a huge fan of many of the coaches in the conference, with only a few (Dana Altman, Tommy Lloyd) actually being worthy of respect. But there’s a reason UCLA was the near-unanimous choice to win the conference by the media: no one else in the conference has their combination of talent and experience. Oregon probably comes closest, but after them is a series of teams that could make the tournament or go on a hilariously bad losing streak to knock themselves out. Arizona is not as threatening as they were last year, lacking the size that gave the Bruins problems in Tuscon and at the Pac-12 Tournament, and Southern Cal is starting to come back down to earth, though they’ll probably be fine overall this year. The dreaded Rocky Mountain Road Trip is not nearly as scary this year if you take into account that UCLA has done extremely well on this trip under Cronin (5-1 on the road in this set) and that Colorado and Utah just aren’t very good this year.
And from there, you have the conference tournament and then the NCAA Tournament.
Last year I set some pretty good expectations for UCLA basketball, if I do say so myself. The Bruins hit every one of my baseline expectations, though they fell a bit short of my optimistic expectations (in fairness, how was I supposed to know everyone would take turns getting injured in January?). So we’re going to set a similar baseline this year, and then throw some optimism after.
Let’s start with some baseline expectations:
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.
An appearance in the Sweet Sixteen (I’m of the opinion more than ever that at that point matchups can wreck a tournament run, so we’ll set a baseline as that).
Again, pretty standard baseline. I think this team is more than capable of getting splits in their non-conference series, and they should sit comfortably near the top of the conference all season long. A top four seed should be expected at this point, and with that you’d have to expect a Sweet Sixteen appearance as well.
But if I’m getting optimistic:
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).
Sweet Sixteen appearance. Again, if you get there then you’re good, and it becomes more of a coin flip.
If you’ve come all this way and want a basic summary of the season, I’ll just say this: UCLA has all the components you need to win a national championship. They have veteran leadership, young talent, athleticism, and the commitment to defense that can win you games in March. Whether it happens or not is anyone’s guess, but I would not bet against the Bruins to make some noise when the lights are shining brightest.
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