"My rule was I wouldn't recruit a kid if he had grass in front of his house.
That's not my world. My world was a cracked sidewalk." —Al McGuire

Thursday, November 12, 2020

UCLA Preview, 2020-21

UCLA Bruins

December 11th, Pauley Pavilion

Coach: Mick Cronin (384-182 overall, 19-12 at UCLA)

3-Year NCAA Ranking Average: 77.3

3-Year kenpom Average: 78.7

Projected 2020-21 T-Rank: 34

Tyger Campbell & Mick Cronin are brewin' up a UCLA resurgence

Photo from Los Angeles Daily News

Projected Starters: PG Tyger Campbell (5'11" RS So), SG David Singleton (6'4" Jr), SF Jaime Jaquez, Jr (6'6" So), PF Chris Smith (6'9" Sr), C Jalen Hill (6'10" RS Jr)

There were a lot of skeptics when Mick Cronin brought his bruising, slow-down style to Westwood. When the Bruins got off to a 12-11 start with losses to Hofstra and Cal State Fullerton on the ledger, it was even worse than people expected. The Bruins finished the season 7-1 and were playing like a top-20 team as they almost captured a share of the Pac-12 title. To Cronin's credit, the Bruins were at their best when they adhered to his style, going 7-8 when games had 66+ possessions but 12-4 in games with 65 or fewer possessions. Not only that, but all 4 of those losses came to teams that were either in the final Cracked Sidewalks projected NCAA field or, in the case of Stanford, just outside (first four out). Whether that late surge would've earned UCLA a tourney bid or not, they definitely improved as the season went on and as they adjusted to Cronin's style.

After losing top-20 freshmen Daishen Nix to the G-League, UCLA got a big boost when star forward Chris Smith pulled his name out of the NBA Draft. For the most part, UCLA goes forward with a roster very similar to last year. All five starters return and they also add former 5-star shooter Johnny Juzang, who is transferring from Kentucky, and 4-star freshman guard Jaylen Clark. Tyger Campbell is a talented distributor who is best served when he doesn't shoot the ball. They have a deep rotation of wings, including Singleton, Jaquez, Juzang, Jake Kyman, and Jules Bernard, all of whom are 6'4-6'7" and able to provide depth and defensive pressure. Up front, Smith, Hill, and Cody Riley excel as physical presences inside drawing fouls and cleaning the offensive glass while providing length and rim protection on defense.

It didn't show early on, but the end-of-the-year Bruins were what Cronin wanted his team to be. Offensively, they were grinding the shot clock, making threes, getting their misses, and putting back second-chance points. Defensively, they suffocated teams inside without fouling while their deep roster and physical length allowed them to be aggressive. Cronin's Cincinnati teams were similar to this. Slow-down pace, physical defense, and good enough offense to grind out wins. What makes this UCLA squad different is the level of talent. It's possible the late run last year was an aberration, but if the athleticism is going to truly mesh this well with Cronin's efficient system, their ceiling is high.

So what can we expect from UCLA in 2020-21? I definitely don't think they're as bad as their 12-11 start, but I'm not convinced by their top-20, 7-1 finish either. The Pac-12 last year wasn't particularly good and the most impressive of those 7 wins were sweeping Arizona (never as good as their efficiency metrics indicated) and Colorado (fell off after their stellar non-con). UCLA should be safely in the NCAA field, but look more like an "Also Receiving Votes" team than a bonafide top-20 squad. Early on in the season, however, I think they will be a stout test for Marquette. This is a team that has played together and is hungry after their late season surge was cut short. The key matchup to watch will be Tyger Campbell against DJ Carton. Campbell is UCLA's most important player simply because without Nix, they don't have anyone else who can play his position. During that late-season 8-game stretch, Campbell played 36+ minutes on 7 occasions, all of which were wins. The only one he didn't was when he played 34 minutes in the season finale against USC, which they lost.

Marquette Connection: What is stunning about Marquette and UCLA isn't the history they share, but rather the history they don't share. The programs have only met twice, both times in Milwaukee with UCLA claiming victory in both 1949 and 1964. In the 1970s, UCLA went 273-27 and their 0.910 winning percentage was the best decade in NCAA history. Barely behind them was Marquette at 252-40. While their 0.863 winning percentage was second to the Bruins, it still stands as the third best decade winning percentage in NCAA history with only 1950s Kentucky between the two. Yet somehow, despite two of the top three decade-long programs in NCAA history playing at the same time, they never met during that stretch. They came within a game of meeting twice. Both teams made the 1974 Final Four but UCLA lost to NC State, robbing them of a chance to meet Marquette in the title game. In 1976, Marquette came up one game short of the Final Four, losing to undefeated Indiana, who beat UCLA in their next game en route to the title.

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