UCLA Men's Basketball Post-Mortem, Part 1: It Was Good, Right?
In part one of our season review, we take a long look at the entire 2021-2022 season to gauge whether it was successful.
Ok, I think that’s enough time to let the taste of that ending wash out of my mouth.
UCLA’s season ended last week in heartbreaking fashion, blowing a late lead to North Carolina to get bounced in the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA Tournament. It was a bitter end to a season that had no shortage of adversity for the Bruins to overcome, and the fact that the Tar Heels are still playing keeps that wound fresh.
But we’re moving on now, and it’s time to start looking back on the season, determine what went right and what went wrong, and look forward to the future. So, we’re going to do that in multiple parts here, and we’re going to start with a simple question: was this a successful season for UCLA basketball?
Thanks for reading the article, see you in the next one.
Ok fine, let’s dig into this a little deeper, because there are a few angles to look at here.
I think we should start by looking back at the beginning of the year. In the season preview, I laid out the following list for a successful year:
So let’s do this: I’ll set some baseline expectations for what would make this a successful season, and then I’ll list out how I think the season will go. So starting with the expectations:
UCLA wins one of their two top-five matchups against Villanova and Gonzaga.
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).
Those seem reasonable and would put UCLA in a position for a special season.
Now, if you went line-by-line down that list, UCLA achieved all of those spots. They won against Villanova to start the year, were comfortably in the top three of the conference, got a top-four seed in the tournament, and made it to the Sweet Sixteen. By my own criteria, this was a successful season, and I even pointed out as much in the post-game from last week. If you get to the Sweet Sixteen, that means you belong, and that it’s basically a coin flip the rest of the way; even the double-digit seeds proved to be good teams, with two of the four to make it that far advancing to the Elite Eight (with a third being eliminated by another one of the double-digits in the process).
But I understand why there is disappointment in how the season went, and I think it’s important to look at everything that went into the season and maybe a bit of a macro look at the program by the end of this year.
UCLA entered this season with a preseason top-5 ranking and a spot on the shortlist of teams considered to be championship contenders. A lot of that goodwill was built on the back of a fantastic run to the Final Four in the previous year, and with the entirety of that lineup coming back along with some new pieces to supplement the roster, it was a completely understandable viewpoint to have. The early victory over Villanova at home did nothing to dissuade the optimism.
Where I think people went wrong (myself included) was in a misreading of what that Final Four run actually entailed. To be sure, the UCLA run was keyed by a lot of guys playing at their absolute peak, but it also was UCLA operating at their ceiling for a sustained period of time, especially on the defensive end, and with a coach who pushed all the right buttons at exactly the right time. The situation that led to that run would be hard to replicate for a variety of reasons, and if UCLA tried to do so, it would be to its detriment.
For one, UCLA had depth this year that they lacked last year due to the in-season losses of Chris Smith and Jalen Hill. Myles Johnson provided the interior defensive presence that was lacking during the tournament run, while Peyton Watson was the rangy athlete that the Bruins could utilize for stretches. Throw in improvements from guys like Jaylen Clark, Tyger Campbell, and Jules Bernard, and this was a team that did not necessarily need to win the way they did the year prior, and the numbers bore that out. UCLA’s offense for the entire season ended up 12th in Kenpom adjusted efficiency, which is in line with where they were last year, but the defense made another major leap in Cronin’s third year at the helm, ending up at 15th in Kenpom (in Cronin’s first two years, the Bruins rated 112th and 46th in defense respectively).
The Bruins were able to do this despite suffering through injuries that derailed major pieces. Cody Riley was injured in the first game of the season and did not return until January, and he was never able to get back to form once he returned. Jaime Jaquez was playing at an All-American level until an ankle injury suffered in January hampered him, and while he eventually found a way to play through the injury and even thrive, a second injury during the opening weekend of the tournament was too much to overcome. Johnny Juzang, he of the March heroics that powered UCLA the previous year, also suffered an ankle injury late that he never really recovered from. Oh yeah, and the program was forced to shut down for a few weeks as COVID ran through the locker room, with several players reportedly suffering from symptoms that lingered well past the restart. These were all problems that UCLA had a theoretical solution for but for various reasons (which we’ll get to in the next piece) they were never able to put things together for a large stretch.
That’s maybe the biggest question hanging over this season, and one that I’m sure is giving plenty of people pause when it comes to evaluating things. Over the entirety of the season, UCLA never put together a sustained stretch of excellent play like we saw last March. Perhaps the best stretch was in late January when the Bruins swept the Rocky Mountain Road trip and then returned home to beat Arizona and the Bay Area schools, but the Bruins followed that up with a nightmarish road trip to the desert. Too often, UCLA let a lot of bad teams stay in games longer than they should have, and dropped bad games to Arizona State and twice to Oregon. Even the games against top teams should be looked at a bit warily; UCLA was able to beat Villanova and Arizona at home, but a neutral site game with Gonzaga was over by the 10-minute mark, while the road trip to Arizona saw UCLA get blitzed early and struggle to answer. The Bruins struggled on the road, which was an odd situation for a veteran squad to be in.
Overall, you end up with a UCLA that had clearly raised its floor from the year prior but did not seem to raise its ceiling. In order for UCLA to compete against the top teams, they had to have the majority of the team playing to their highest potential, and unfortunately UCLA could not get that to happen on a consistent basis, and now it gets to sit at home while the team that beat it plays for the national championship.
Successful season? Yes, absolutely.
As good as it could have been? Definitely a more open question.
Next we’ll take a look at the offense and defense this past year, and areas of improvement for the program, before finishing with a discussion of the future.