Mick Cronin's first two seasons at UCLA ended in similar fashion: a hot streak followed by a heartbreaking conclusion.
A successful debut under the head coach two years ago saw a late 11–2 surge halted by a buzzer-beater by USC that denied the program a Pac-12 title. A global pandemic and the cancellation of the NCAA Tournament was piled on top just days later. Last season was much the same — albeit on the grand stage of March Madness — as a magical run to the Final Four ended when a miraculous last-second overtime heave by Gonzaga left the Bruins just short of the national title game.
Yet Cronin hasn't dwelled on the missed opportunities as much as he's turned attention toward a campaign that he hopes will be defined by neither anguish nor coronavirus, but rather a return to the lofty levels of success expected around Westwood. For the first time in over a decade, optimism is matched by a roster that looks to be among the elite in the game. All five starters return and are flanked by a balanced group off the bench that sports depth, experience and toughness.
Whether it can coalesce into the school's first national championship since 1995 remains to be seen, but it's clear that the powder blues have all the ingredients to overcome recent setbacks in order to deliver a potentially special 2021-22 season.
At a Glance
HEAD COACH: Mick Cronin
2020-21 RECORD (PAC-12): 22-10 (13-6)
2020-21 POSTSEASON: NCAA: Lost to Gonzaga 93-90 in the Final Four
F/C Jalen Hill (6.5 ppg, 5.9 rpg)
G Chris Smith (12.6 ppg, 6.4 rpg)
After a rough start at UCLA, 6'9" forward Cody Riley has progressively gotten better each year and stepped his game up even further upon becoming the team's top option in the low post. Following career highs in nearly every category, coaches hope the trend lines keep progressing for the senior as his midrange game grows ever more potent.
While Riley's defensive effort tends to exceed his physical limitations, the expectation is he won't have to worry as much about protecting the rim thanks to the arrival of Rutgers big man Myles Johnson. The grad transfer ranked second in the Big Ten in blocks (2.43 bpg) and provides added length in the lane with his 6'10" frame. Kenneth Nwuba has shown brief flashes as a rebounder off the bench as well.
Following his NCAA Tournament star turn, Johnny Juzang returns as one of the faces of college basketball. The Kentucky transfer is back as the Bruins' leading scorer (16.0 ppg) and will look to add increased consistency to his game over the course of a full season. After he shot 51 percent in a postseason run that stamped his name in school record books next to the likes of Kevin Love and Gail Goodrich, it's safe to say that UCLA's ultimate ceiling will largely hinge on what the junior does for an encore.
This is far from a one-man backcourt, however. Jaime Jaquez Jr. is a 6'7" burst of energy at both ends of the court, and point guard Tyger Campbell is a maestro at controlling tempo and dishing assists. Jules Bernard, David Singleton and Jake Kyman are all capable of double-digit scoring efforts on any given night but will have to fight for playing time amongst each other.
Incoming wing Peyton Watson was a consensus top-10 recruit and should push for a starting role, too.
It's a testament to the team's evolution under Cronin that the Bruins have mostly moved past recent heartbreak and appear unfazed by the weight of historic expectations — to the point where they enter the upcoming campaign embracing the label as one of the best teams in the country. This doesn't stem from any sense of arrogance but rather a confidence in a roster that has shown it can play with pretty much anybody.
Now comes the difficult part of channeling everything into results that have thus far proven elusive. Luckily, UCLA sports a national Player of the Year candidate in Juzang, a deep rotation and a defensive toughness rarely seen at blue bloods nowadays. Add it all up, and it's easy to see why a Pac-12 title and a return to the Final Four are being viewed as the bare minimum in Westwood.
Postseason Prediction: NCAA Tournament National Runner-up
Pac-12 Prediction: 1