Final record: 21-10
Season finish: Pac-12 semifinals
Team MVP: Jalen Hill
Where most Bruin teams have the burden of expectations, this year’s squad does not.
No votes in the preseason AP poll, no appearances in preseason bracketology projections and an eighth-place finish in the preseason Pac-12 media poll. That’s lower than UCLA men’s basketball has finished since the inception of the poll in 1984.
From a historic sense, the Bruins are more overlooked than they ever have been – and that might be a good thing.
A 20-win season would put UCLA on the bubble for the NCAA tournament, which is not usually something the Bruin faithful are satisfied with. But with the aforementioned low expectations and general positive outlook toward newly hired coach Mick Cronin, a winning record alone could be seen as a great foundation and stepping stone for the future.
At the moment, it doesn’t look like any Bruins will be forgoing collegiate eligibility to enter the 2020 NBA Draft, so Cronin should spend time building chemistry and an identity within this team. The former Cincinnati coach has a deep and dynamic roster at his disposal, and he’ll take his time working out which lineups best fit his up-tempo, hard-nosed style.
It’s hard to predict who will take over the offensive load with guards Jaylen Hands and Kris Wilkes gone, so trying to pick a leading scorer on this team is essentially like throwing darts at a board. It won’t be one guy leading the team in points every night, but rather a rotating team effort.
So with the go-to scorer up in the air and logjams at the two, three and four, redshirt freshman guard Tyger Campbell and redshirt sophomore forward Jalen Hill stand out as players with the clearest roles already carved out for them.
Campbell has yet to play a real game in blue and gold, so it seems intense to put the responsibility of running the offense squarely on his shoulders. Hill, on the other hand, has been here before. He was UCLA’s best rebounder as well as best shot-blocker, other than center Moses Brown last season, and now he has a regular starting role and a pass-first point guard perfectly positioned to throw him lobs every night.
The redshirt sophomore may not be a true center, but his length, instincts and athleticism down low will help UCLA establish a presence in the paint night in and night out.
That may not be enough to get the Bruins to the big dance, but it will be enough to prove tangible improvement from last season.
Daily Bruin senior staff
Final record: 19-12
Season finish: Pac-12 quarterfinals
Team MVP: Tyger Campbell
The Bruins will be better than they have been in recent years, but it won’t be enough to tip the scale in the Pac-12.
UCLA men’s basketball’s hiring of coach Mick Cronin may not have been the flashy choice that some people were expecting last April, but it feels safe to say that Cronin is going to extract every ounce of talent out of this roster.
The players have had nothing but good things to say about their new head coach and, most importantly, Cronin owns a track record that speaks for itself. The former Cincinnati coach led the Bearcats to the NCAA tournament in each of the past nine seasons, and he’s done so without having any of the nation’s top recruits or draft prospects.
But Cronin’s no longer in the American Athletic Conference – he’s in the Pac-12.
Five Pac-12 schools have top-40 recruiting classes with four of them being in the top 11 – Oregon, Arizona, USC and Washington. Unfortunately for Cronin and the Bruins, those three teams account for just over 22.5% of the team’s schedule.
While UCLA has some promising young talent on its roster in redshirt freshman guard Tyger Campbell and redshirt freshman forward Shareef O’Neal, that likely won’t be enough to go toe to toe with some of the conference’s top teams.
The Bruins do have a solid supporting cast of veterans that will provide experience and on-court chemistry, but it’s not the type of supporting cast that UCLA leaned on in recent years with the likes of Isaac Hamilton, Bryce Alford and Aaron Holiday.
The Bruins also have one major flaw that will need to be addressed if they want to make a run at anything more than a middle of the pack finish in the Pac-12: 3-point shooting.
UCLA shot 5-of-22 from beyond the arc in its exhibition game against Stanislaus State, and that shouldn’t have surprised anybody. Sophomore guard David Singleton is the only player on the roster who has shot better than 40% from deep over the course of a collegiate season.
Whether it’s the improvement of somebody like sophomore guard Jules Bernard or the emergence of freshman guard/forward Jake Kyman, the Bruins will need somebody to step up from behind the 3-point line.
Assistant Sports editor
Final record: 23-8
Season finish: NCAA Round of 64
Team MVP: Prince Ali
I’m all in on Mick Cronin.
The coach was a jokester during the Pac-12 media day in San Francisco on Oct. 8, shooting down questions about the historically low preseason predictions for his squad with well-timed – and genuinely funny – retorts.
And that’s my attitude heading into the season. The doubters can say what they want, but I believe in the change that Cronin will bring to the program. For now, I’m ready to laugh off the preseason skepticism.
If anything, a successful year for Cronin means stepping up from last season’s .500 record in conference play.
But I think he can do more than that. Cronin hasn’t missed the NCAA tournament since 2010, and I would argue that he’s managed to qualify for March Madness each year with considerably less talent than is at his disposal here in Westwood.
The squad is young, with many players lacking collegiate basketball experience, including redshirt freshman guard Tyger Campbell and redshirt freshman forward Shareef O’Neal. But while the Bruins are returning without their three leading scorers from last year, there are veterans that will hold down the fort in redshirt seniors guard Prince Ali – who leads returning Bruins with 663 career points – and forward Alex Olesinski.
Ali has the ability to step in and make up a lot of the scoring that departed with guard Kris Wilkes, and Campbell has a chance to fill the shoes of guard Jaylen Hands.
Sure, the Bruins may not have the same talent on paper as Oregon or USC in the Pac-12, but Cronin is the X-factor. Who knows how his system – which has seen consistent success over the past decade – will shake things up in Westwood.
It’s going to be a big leap for UCLA to wiggle itself into the conversation of the national tournament. Call me a blind optimist, but with a strong conference showing, I think the opportunity is there.
Let’s just hope Cronin is still cracking jokes come March.
Daily Bruin staff
Final record: 18-13
Season finish: Pac-12 semifinals
Team MVP: Tyger Campbell
This year is about the future for the Bruins.
The season’s primary objectives will be to ingrain coach Mick Cronin’s basketball tenets, set a defensive-first mindset and find the pieces that will be part of the rotation year when Cronin brings in his first full recruiting class for the Bruins.
With the former Cincinnati coach’s focus on defense, the offensive playmaking responsibilities will largely fall on redshirt freshman guard Tyger Campbell. Other players to look out for include 6-foot-9 junior guard Chris Smith and sophomore guard David Singleton.
Smith has an NBA-ready body and the coaching staff is already starting to mold his game into one predicated on steals, blocks and deflections. Singleton’s 46.7% mark from deep last season, combined with his hard-nosed defensive tenacity, will provide the Bruins with the much-needed spacing, and will fit in perfectly with cultural adjustment Cronin is looking to make.
Cronin’s teams have made the tournament in each of the last nine years. This year, especially with the depth present in the Pac-12, it will be difficult for Cronin to continue his postseason streak.
Overall, the season will be viewed as a success if there is a positive trend and if the defensive identity missing during former coach Steve Alford’s reign is finally etched in stone.