The 2021 UCLA Men's Basketball Season Preview, Part II
In part 2 of our season preview, we take a look at the conference, the schedule, and set expectations for the 2021 season.
Welcome back to The Mighty Bruin’s 2021 UCLA Men’s Basketball Season Preview. In Part I, we broke down the roster, going over both the returning players and the newcomers. In this part, we’re going to take a look at the rest of the Pac-12 Conference, break down the schedule, and set some expectations for the season.
Let’s get into it.
The Pac-12 Conference
It’s safe to say that the Pac-12 Conference was the biggest surprise of the 2021 NCAA Tournament. The conference sent five teams into the tournament, and four of the five made it to the second weekend (Colorado being the lone exception). Three of those four made it to the Elite 8, with Oregon getting knocked out by fellow conference-mate Southern Cal in the process, and the Bruins gave the conference a representative in the Final Four, one of only two Power 5 conference teams to make it that far.
Not bad for the much-maligned Conference of Champions.
Now, how much of that was a case of the conference actually being that good all season, and how much of that was just a case of the teams getting hot at the right time? Personally, I lean more towards the second being the case for a few reasons, the least of which is most of the Pac-12 Conference did not have the same ramp-up period that most of the country did thanks to the pandemic. The Pac-12 was at the point in March that many teams were at by January, where they had played and practiced with each other long enough to show signs of improvement. UCLA definitely had to relearn how to play together a few different times thanks to the losses of Chris Smith and Jalen Hill while Oregon was doing its usual of making a team of transfers gel. Southern Cal spent most of the season figuring out whether they really wanted to make the future #2 pick the focal point of their entire gameplan (spoiler: they eventually figured it out), while Oregon State might be the sole case of a team riding an all-time heater. Colorado had the best player in the conference in McKinley Wright, who was able to single-handedly win the Buffaloes plenty of games.
But that was last year, and what do those results mean for this year? According to the media in the preseason poll: not much, really.
UCLA was never really in doubt to take 1st in the preseason poll, just like they were last year. Going to the Final Four and returning the entirety of the rotation that got you there is going to do that. Oregon, similarly, was likely going to stick to that #2 spot by virtue of Dana Altman. Southern Cal has earned some benefit of the doubt after a few years of solid performance, though it is hard to know how big a step back they take now that Evan Mobley isn’t patrolling the middle of the court.
Past that, you have a lot of teams with question marks. Arizona and Utah have new coaches. Oregon State was an average team last year that has not earned the benefit of the doubt. Colorado lost the best player in the conference. Arizona State’s best player last year is now the preseason Big 12 Player of the Year, among the other fires going on in that program. Stanford feels like they’re close to firing their head coach. Washington and Berkeley feel like they’re REALLY close to firing their head coach.
It might sound like I’m generally down on the conference, and honestly, I am. There are two clearly good teams in UCLA and Oregon, a third team that could join them in Southern Cal, and then a bunch of question marks that probably won’t make a ton of noise in nonconference, which ultimately hurts the conference perception. I think the conference ultimately can get to six teams making the NCAA Tournament, but more than that seems like a stretch this early until some teams show what they can do.
And if you’re looking at this from UCLA’s perspective, this is absolutely a conference they should be able to dominate. Only Oregon and Southern Cal should give the Bruins any issues if they’re focused, and that’s based mostly on either talent (Oregon) or random rivalry factors (Southern Cal). I’m not going to claim UCLA runs the table in the conference, but they’re more than capable of doing so if they stay healthy.
This is a true blue blood schedule, and it starts off with a bang this week, as the Bruins will host #4 Villanova on Friday. I imagine Pauley will be rocking for that game, and I’m excited to be there for that game. Villanova also presents a fascinating challenge for the Bruins, as they might be the only team in the country that can boast a similar level of top-end continuity, and they routinely possess one of the best offenses in the country. UCLA will need to come out focused for that game, but if there’s one thing I can trust Coach Cronin with more than anything else, it’s that the Bruins will be focused.
What’s impressive about this schedule is that the Villanova game isn’t even the biggest game on the schedule. That belongs to the Thanksgiving week rematch with #1 Gonzaga in Las Vegas. If both teams can take care of business to start the season (the Bulldogs similarly have a top 5 matchup against Texas prior to this game) then this has some real “Game of the Century” vibes, especially if both teams somehow manage to come close to living up to the hype the game will generate.
The rest of the nonconference is no slouch either. UCLA draws North Carolina and new coach Hubert Davis in the CBS Sports Classic, and have away games against Marquette and UNLV. This is the type of nonconference scheduling designed to get the Bruins a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Looking over the Pac-12 schedule and how it shakes out, I think the Bruins got some help from the conference. They skip out on traveling to Washington State, which is never a fun trip to make, and they get some protection surrounding the harder road trips. The hardest stretch of the schedule is likely the last three games, which include a road trip to Oregon and a matchup against Southern Cal, but by that point the conference race might have already been decided. Of course, I’m sure UCLA fans will have January 13th circled on their calendar to see how Dana Altman will squirm out of playing at UCLA this year.
Trying to set expectations for a team with national title aspirations is hard. For example, I am not setting a “championship or bust” mentality for this season like many would have you believe is the modus operandi for most UCLA basketball fans. I’m similarly of the opinion that it would be unwise to state that the Bruins have to win the Pac-12 championship, even if I believe they are fully capable of doing so. On top of all that, I want to set expectations that account for an injury or two to what is a rather deep roster.
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. As for how I think the season will go:
UCLA wins at least one of their two top-five matchups. Right now, I’d put more money on them beating Gonzaga in a revenge game where they’ll have more continuity than the Bulldogs, but they’re more than capable of winning both games.
UCLA cruises through Pac-12 play. They’re never truly threatened, as Oregon routinely sits a few games back in the standings, and cruise into the final two weeks having already clinched a share of the regular season crown.
Top two seed in the NCAA Tournament. I actually think this benefits the Bruins more because the committee would love to give Gonzaga the #1 seed out West, and with some other strong teams (Kansas, Texas) in the South, they’d likely take a #1 seed in the Midwest which means going to Chicago. I think the Bruins would prefer heading to San Antonio as the #2 seed in this scenario instead of being a #1 and playing a Big 10 team.
(You may be asking why Gonzaga would end up with the #1 seed out West. Well, after a December 4th meeting with Alabama, the Bulldogs are set up for 20 straight wins heading into the postseason that will help their resume, so unless they lose a bunch of these marquee noncon games, they’re almost guaranteed to take that spot.)
At that point, it’s a total crapshoot as to what the Bruins do in the tournament. I am of the opinion that the Bruins have what it takes to make a championship run, but recognize that things can get screwy from the Sweet Sixteen on.
But that all gets at the inherent fun of having a team as highly-regarded as UCLA is this season. They have a ceiling that ends in a national championship while retaining a floor that still made the Final Four last year despite being in the First Four play-in game.
UCLA will be good this year. The big question to answer is how good they ultimately end up being.