It’s the start of a new chapter for Bruin basketball.
UCLA men’s basketball will host Long Beach State in its season opener Wednesday night in Pauley Pavilion, where the Bruins will be going for their sixth consecutive win over the Beach in the past eight years.
After UCLA’s 30-point victory over Stanislaus State last week in its lone exhibition game, coach Mick Cronin said he is excited for the regular season because it will give his players the opportunity to continue competing against and learning about Division I opponents in a game rather than against each other in practice.
“You’ve got to start playing and that’s the only way we’re going to be able to grow,” Cronin said. “Learn how to not make certain mistakes, whether it’s unnecessary fouls, misadvised shots or ill-advised passes.”
Cronin doesn’t expect Long Beach State to be a pushover, either. He said that because the Beach’s roster includes 11 new players, he has had a difficult time formulating a concrete game plan.
“It’s unbelievable how much turnover they had, so it’s been very hard to scout their personnel,” Cronin said. “But as far as their style of play, they’re an aggressive defensive team, they like to press, they like to deny.”
While Long Beach State’s tendency to wreak havoc and force turnovers could spell trouble for a Bruins team still getting used to each other and a new system, Cronin emphasized that he is being patient with a roster that consists of 10 underclassmen.
“I’ve just got to keep telling myself, ‘Rome’s not built in a day,’” Cronin said. “You’re trying to build habits with guys. Habits in practice are one thing; getting things to be second nature to guys is a whole ‘nother thing.”
One player who has already become very familiar with the concept of being patient is redshirt freshman forward Shareef O’Neal.
O’Neal – who missed all of last season following heart surgery – is set to make his much-anticipated collegiate debut for the Bruins on Wednesday. The former four-star recruit said his entire family will be in attendance, including his father, Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame center Shaquille O’Neal.
Shareef O’Neal acknowledged the outside expectations that typically come with being the son of a global sports icon, but he said that he has learned over time to put it to the side and focus on himself and his game.
“When I was younger, I used to think it was a distraction,” he said. “I would always play a game, he would come and all the attention would go to him, but I feel like he kind of lets me do my own thing. Our games aren’t really that similar, so I feel like it’s not a big distraction anymore.”
Shareef O’Neal also said that he feels comfortable mentally and physically on the basketball court again following his yearlong recovery from heart surgery, but added that he hasn’t been able to put it completely behind him off the floor because of how much he is asked about it.
“It’s something that’s in my head, but when I’m playing I really don’t think about it anymore,” he said. “I know people probably have a lot of questions in their head after the surgery, but it’s not something that bothers me.”
O’Neal’s performance in practice isn’t raising any questions, however, as it has already caught the attention of teammate Chris Smith. The junior guard had high praise for O’Neal’s versatility and athleticism following practice on Monday.
“(O’Neal’s) got God-given talent,” Smith said. “The dude can run the floor like no one else. He can pretty much play any position on the court.”
O’Neal and the Bruins will have a chance to secure the program’s eighth consecutive season-opening win when UCLA and Long Beach State tip off at 8 p.m. on Wednesday night.