"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

Wednesday, November 03, 2021

UCLA Preview, 2021-22

UCLA Bruins

December 11, Fiserv Forum, 1:30 pm

Head Coach: Mick Cronin (406-193 overall, 41-22 at UCLA)

Three-Year NET Average: 70.3

Three-Year Kenpom Average: 64.3

Projected 2021-22 T-Rank: 2

Johnny Juzang shot UCLA to the Final Four
Photo by Jamie Schwaberow, Getty Images

Projected Starters: PG Tyger Campbell (5'11" Jr), SG Johnny Juzang (6'6" Jr), SF Jules Bernard (6'6" Sr), PF Jaime Jacquez (6'6" Jr), C Cody Riley (6'9" Sr)

Hollywood couldn't have scripted a much better finish for UCLA than they had in 2021. Johnny Juzang had his star turn, averaging 22.8 ppg in the NCAA Tournament on a sparkling 58.0 eFG% and 37.5% from beyond the arc. They dispatched Michigan State (in overtime), BYU, Abilene Christian, Alabama (in overtime again), and Michigan before falling to Gonzaga in a third overtime contest on Jalen Suggs half-court buzzer beater. While the Bruins certainly deserve credit for that run, it's worth remembering how they got there. UCLA sputtered down the stretch, losing their last four and barely making it into the Tournament field. Before they rallied from 14 down against Michigan State, they were ranked #44 on kenpom, with losses to #83 Stanford, #85 Oregon State, #107 Washington State, and needing overtime to beat #112 Pepperdine and #113 Arizona State. Maybe it was the analytics underrating the Pac-12 or maybe UCLA just wasn't all that good, but they did find lightning in the NCAA bottle. They escaped Michigan State and they did win all those games in March. All of that counts, but it took a remarkable run to get from where they were before the NCAA Tournament started to where they are ranked today.

They do bring just about everyone back from that run, starting with Tyger Campbell. He's a reliable floor general that distributes and protects the ball. Juzang, Jules Bernard, and Jaime Jacquez give Cronin a trio of versatile, athletic wings that can all shoot the ball and defend almost any position. Up front, Riley is a space-eater that can score down low and keep the boards clean on both ends. In addition, the Bruins bring in a five-star recruit in Peyton Watson that could push Bernard for minutes with his length and athleticism while Rutgers transfer Myles Johnson is a true rim protector that will offer a change of pace from Riley and could emerge as the team's leading center by the season's end. With those two additions, there is a viable argument that UCLA will be a better team because they have legitimate pieces that improve what was already there on last year's Final Four team.

Perhaps the most surprising thing under Mick Cronin is how UCLA has remained an offense-first program. While there's no automatic shooter, everyone they put on the floor 1-4 is a threat to make threes. They run a highly deliberate offense, avoiding the fast break in favor of half court sets. Campbell pulls the strings and having a player like Juzang who can break any individual defender down is an incredibly lethal combination. That said, they do like the midrange (5th in the number of 2PFGs away from the rim) which is among the most inefficient means of scoring. Defensively, this team still hasn't fully come around to Cronin's style. They try to keep teams away from the rim and are good at limiting second chance opportunities. Having a shot-blocker like Johnson could really help the rest of the team extend the defense further out. So much of what UCLA does comes down to shooting. It seems basic, but if they have an off night and their opponents are hitting from outside, their scheme isn't going to disrupt that and they are vulnerable.

So what is UCLA? Are they the team currently receiving first place votes in the AP Poll? Are they the team that was ranked 44th on kenpom going into the tournament last year, albeit slightly older? It's worth noting that in the NCAA Tournament, UCLA had a free throw defense of 62.4% (63/101) and three point defense of 26.3% (30/114). Over the course of the season, those relatively random statistics in terms of what can be controlled for would have ranked #2 and #1 nationally. Four of their opponents shot below their season free throw average and five shot below their season three point average. Over a full season, those numbers are not sustainable. They certainly have a lot of talent and have the potential to compete at the highest level, as last year showed, but their players will have to carry that step forward into the new season and the new pieces will have to fit in seamlessly if they are going to be as good as the pundits are saying. They will likely be a contender for the Pac-12 title and have the ability to be fighting for a protected seed in March, but anyone penciling them into a 1-seed or Final Four again is probably being a bit premature based on the reality of what they are as currently constructed.

Marquette Connection: Last year's UCLA tied the record for the lowest seed (11) to ever advance to the Final Four while also becoming just the second team in history to advance from the First Four to the Final Four, matching marks both accomplished by Marquette head coach, Shaka Smart. Smart took his 2011 VCU team on a similar run to the Final Four. While this will mark the first time two coaches that went First Four to Final Four square off head-to-head, it won't be the first time Smart and Cronin have faced off. They first met in December, 2014, when Smart's VCU team traveled to Cincinnati and laid a 68-47 beat-down on Cronin's Bearcats. The two almost met for a second time last year. Had Smart's Texas Longhorns not been upset by Abilene Christian on two free throws by a 59% free throw shooter with 2 seconds to play, Texas would've faced UCLA in the second round.

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