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UCLA Basketball Preview: How High Can the Bruins Fly?
The Bruins have all the tools to win the Pac-12. The question is: Can they get there?
One of the nice things about bringing back all the major contributors from last season is that it gives Coach Mick Cronin the opportunity to build on the foundational work the team did last year and further expand on the systems in place.
Let’s start with that starting lineup, which through the previews I assumed would look something like this:
PG: Tyger Campbell
SG: David Singleton
SF: Jaime Jaquez Jr.
PF: Chris Smith
C: Jalen Hill
This is, of course, using traditional understandings of positions. It’s easier to understand UCLA’s lineup using the more common 1-5 system, since Hill is not a true center, much like Smith is not a true power forward. But this is a solid group that provides an excellent starting mix of offense and defense, combining outside shooting with dribble penetration while having the length and athleticism to compete on the defensive end.
That said, this is by no means the lineup that will close out games and that’s one of the strengths of this current UCLA squad. Cronin has shown a willingness to ride the hot hand, which led to Jake Kyman, Cody Riley, and Jules Bernard closing out games at times last year. Throw in Johnny Juzang and Jaylen Clark, and Cronin now has all kinds of options to attack teams on both ends.
If anything, I’d almost expect that starting lineup to change by the time Pac-12 play rolls around, and most likely seeing Juzang inserted into the lineup for Singleton with the idea being to always have Juzang or Kyman on the court. Doing so would guarantee that the Bruins would always have a major threat from behind the arc on the court at all times that opposing defenses would have to stick to, thus opening the rest of the floor up for Campbell and Smith to drive. This change would also free up Singleton for more minutes backing up Campbell, which will be necessary over the course of a long season.
The lineup possibilities don’t end there. Consider a small ball lineup with Singleton/Juzang/Kyman/Jaquez/Smith. This lineup would have the ability to go 5-out from behind the arc with Singleton, Jaquez, and Smith all having the ability to drive and kick. On defense, this group would be undersized but has solid length, with Jaquez and Smith being excellent rebounders. This is not a “death lineup” like the Golden State Warriors had at the height of their dynasty, but it could provide an intriguing look that could mess with opponents.
Or the inverse could happen. Load up on big bodies with a lineup featuring Bernard/Jaquez/Smith/Riley/Hill. The paint would become a bit crowded, but the Bruins would be able to absolutely punish opposing defenses inside, and the lineup has the ability on defense to physically manhandle opponents. There’d be some questions here, such as who would initiate the offense (if this lineup were to happen, I’d guess at the coaching staff having enough faith in their “Jules Bernard backup PG” experiment to test it) but it’s another lineup permutation that opposing teams would have to try and solve.
Strategically, I’m actually not expecting much different from this team. On offense, they’ll still be very perimeter oriented, just due to the quality of their perimeter guys compared to the lack of polish on any non-Riley interior option. But that’s generally fine. Hill, in particular, excels at offensive rebounding and the Bruins have good shooters who should improve on their overall numbers. One would assume some level of shifting towards the mean on offense, which would, in turn, lead to a general rise in offensive output.
Similarly, the defense should improve simply due to experience and opponent regression. I don’t mean that UCLA’s opponents will be worse, but specifically, UCLA’s opponents shot 38% from distance last season and seemingly shot them at will against the Bruins. UCLA at times struggled to defend the three, but even then that’s a rather high result that indicates the Bruins should start seeing more misses this year. And as suggested repeatedly, just having a second year in the system should lead players to better understand their defensive rotations.
If there’ll be any change in general strategy, I would assume it would come on the defensive end and whether Coach Cronin decides to mix things up a little more. UCLA played man defense almost exclusively last season but, during his Cincinnati tenure, Cronin would mix in a lot of matchup-zone or other varied looks throughout games. So, it will be interesting to see if he does the same here.
So, uh, I’m glad I didn’t write these articles ahead of time, because the schedule just came out as I was writing it. So that’s something.
The full schedule can be found on UCLA’s official site. Prior to the release, we only knew the general non-conference slate, which also included a conference game against UC Berkeley on December 6 and that the Bruins would start the bulk of conference play at Oregon on December 23rd. That’s still the same, but now we know how the conference schedule will shake out the rest of the way, so we can better predict things.
Let’s start with the non-conference slate, which is light on premiere games but features two high-quality opponents in San Diego State and Kentucky. The Bruins are a bit lucky to be playing the Aztecs this year rather than last year, where they were a potential #1 seed in the NCAA tournament and ended the year at 30-2. Their best player, Malachi Flynn, got drafted by Toronto a week ago, but this team should still be plenty talented. They’ll be an excellent early test for the Bruins and I’d probably give the Aztecs the edge just for the program continuity, but this thing should be rather close.
Following the opener, the Bruins have a slate of games they should win. This includes the matchup with UC Berkeley, a program that is definitely improving but not near UCLA’s level currently. Marquette should prove to be the next test, not because the team will be good (the Golden Eagles are experiencing a ton of turnover) but because it is a potential look-ahead game with Kentucky next. Marquette should be able to compete, but if UCLA is the good team we believe them to be, they should handle their business here.
Then, we get to our seemingly yearly meeting with Kentucky. Personally, I love that this has turned into a thing, as the Bruins and the Wildcats are two of the most historically great programs in college basketball and should play against each other all the time. There’s a lot of subtext at play this year, including Coach John Calipari facing UCLA for the first time after using the Bruins to get a huge contract extension from Kentucky. As usual, the Wildcats are a young team made up of a combination of shiny, highly-ranked recruits and solid transfers, but that’s what has usually favored the Bruins in this matchup, as that combination tends to take a bit to get going. Meanwhile, the Bruins have had more veterans that know how to win games at this level. I would not be surprised to see another UCLA victory here.
From there, we get into conference play. I don’t want to go game-by-game here, but rather give a general outline of how I think the conference shakes up.
As of right now, the Bruins should be the conference favorites. That’s what the Pac-12 media believes, as the Bruins were chosen to win the conference with nine first-place votes. That said, the top of the conference appears to be a three-headed beast, as the Bruins should be joined in the battle for conference supremacy with Oregon and Arizona State. Both teams will not lack for talent, but Oregon is probably the safer bet between the two, as I think Dana Altman is a much better coach than Bobby Hurley. On top of that, both of these teams experienced some solid turnover from last year and, while they both brought in good talent to replace it, Arizona State’s collection feels much more liable to implode at a moment’s notice.
Stanford….feels like the 4th place team in general. Yes, they lost the excellent Tyrell Terry, but the program is on the upswing and should be better than many of the other choices in the conference. Then, you end up with the teams at 5-8 who either have good talent but poor coaching (Arizona and Southern Cal) or good coaching but poor talent (Utah and Colorado). Among the four of them, Southern Cal has the best NBA prospect, but Colorado has the best returning player, and I’ve watched enough McKinley Wright these past few years to never bet against him just carrying a team to victory. So let’s go Colorado-Southern Cal-Arizona-Utah for this group.
And yes, I did just skip over the whole concept of Arizona just blowing up as soon as sanctions get announced. That’s just a funny thing that will definitely happen.
The bottom of the conference seems pretty set in order too. Washington may surprise and move up a rung in the pecking order, but they’re firmly in “show me” mode after last year’s complete collapse. UC Berkeley similarly could be better, but they lack the talent or coaching continuity that the programs above them have. Washington State looks improved but it’s going to take a while and Oregon State is about to kick off a full-scale rebuild.
So, with that all laid out, how will the Bruins do? Honestly, it should be interesting. Unfortunately for them, Oregon State is one of the two teams they face once this year, with the other being Stanford. That said, it means they get to face Oregon and Arizona State twice and, with both second legs being at Pauley Pavilion, it gives UCLA some cushion should they lose on the road. The only other team I am worried about on some level is Southern Cal, not because they are a better team, but because Andy Enfield loves to save his job by having his players play ridiculously well against the Bruins while utterly collapsing against other opponents.
Gun to my head, I think UCLA goes 6-1 against their non-conference opponents (with the one being an opening loss to San Diego State just to reset internal expectations) and end up 17-3 in conference with a loss to either Oregon or Arizona State on the road, a loss to Southern Cal to keep Enfield employed, and a random loss elsewhere (let’s pencil in Colorado on the back-end of the Rocky Mountain road trip for now). That should be good enough to win the Bruins the regular-season conference title and should put the Bruins in a prime position for an NCAA tournament run.