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UCLA men’s basketball anticipates high ranking, welcomes newcomers

UCLA men’s basketball hosted its first open media availability of the 2021-2022 campaign Monday. The Bruins are coming off their first Final Four appearance in over a decade and are returning their entire rotation from the NCAA tournament. (Daily Bruin file photo)

By Jon Christon

Oct. 7, 2021 1:07 a.m.

The blue and gold were the underdogs the last time they laced them up.

But heading into the new campaign, the Bruins are back in a familiar position.

UCLA men’s basketball held practice at Mo Ostin Basketball Center on Monday, and multiple players and coach Mick Cronin spoke to the media about the goals of the current roster after the workout. With just over a month until the 2021-2022 season tips off, the Bruins sit near the top in a number of preseason rankings.

Cronin, who was hired at UCLA in 2019 after 13 years with his alma mater Cincinnati, said he welcomes the expectations for his team with open arms.

“I left a place where I could have easily been the all-time winningest coach to come to UCLA – obviously I embrace (the expectations),” Cronin said. “If I didn’t embrace them, I took the wrong job. … You come sit where coach (John) Wooden sat, you better be okay with that stuff.”

The Bruins are coming off their first Final Four run in more than a decade, advancing through five rounds as a No. 11 seed in the NCAA tournament. UCLA bowed out in the national semifinal after a half-court heave from Gonzaga guard Jalen Suggs sunk the Bruins at the buzzer – a shot Cronin said he has yet to watch a replay of.

UCLA will return its entire rotation from that postseason journey, including its starting five. Senior guard Jules Bernard started in each of the Bruins’ seven postseason games in 2021 and said the Final Four run sparked a new level of excitement and expectations for a program that had previously missed three consecutive NCAA tournaments.

“We have added motivation, but we’re just excited to get back,” Bernard said. “Ever since the end of the game against Gonzaga, a lot of fans have been reaching out to all the players, so we’re just excited to get out on the floor and be back playing again.”

Junior guard Johnny Juzang is also back in the fold, opting to stay in Westwood after testing the NBA Draft waters in the offseason.

After averaging 16 points per game as the team’s leading scorer a season ago, Juzang said he hopes the increased spotlight this year will elevate his game even further.

“At least for me, it’s just about competing at the highest level,” Juzang said. “Getting to compete on those stages against the best teams – that’s what I live for.”

Along with its returning rotation, UCLA is also adding multiple newcomers to its roster. Freshman guard/forward Peyton Watson headlines the 2021 recruiting class, while fellow freshman guard Will McClendon will miss the entire season with a torn ACL sustained in practice Sept. 17.

Cronin said Watson will elevate the team’s ceiling in the long run but noted that the five-star recruit is the only freshman on the active roster, and is still learning the ropes of a Cronin-coached team.

“I’ve got to help him through the adjustment phase,” Cronin said. “He’s never had to listen as much as he’s got to listen now – his head’s ready to explode. He probably can hear my voice in his sleep and is probably waking up shaking.”

Redshirt senior center Myles Johnson rounds out the new additions to the roster, as the graduate transfer from Rutgers enters a post rotation that was manned primarily by redshirt senior forward Cody Riley last season.

Johnson averaged eight points, 8.5 rebounds and 2.4 blocks as a redshirt junior at Rutgers a season ago, starting 22 of his team’s 28 games.

Cronin said Johnson’s addition gives his team the ability to make adjustments throughout the season.

“To win the dance trophy at the ball, you’ve got to be able to dance to every song they’re playing and they don’t play the same song every time, so you’ve got to be able to win in different ways – fast game, slow game, physical game, high-scoring game,” Cronin said. “That’s what I like about our depth – we’re eclectic enough to go big and small if we need to.”

Despite the depth and versatility of his new and improved roster, Cronin said he will throw out all of the expectations once the season tips off, even if the Bruins begin the season as a top team in the AP poll.

“Expectations are great because of your fans – you want to sell tickets, create excitement, it’s all part of my job and my life expectancy,” Cronin said. “But it’s irrelevant between the lines. If we taught anybody anything last year, your seed or your ranking does not matter come tournament time.”

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Jon Christon | Sports editor
Christon is currently the Sports editor and a reporter on the men's basketball and football beats. He was previously an assistant Sports editor on the women's basketball, softball, men's tennis and women's tennis beats and a reporter on the women's basketball and softball beats.
Christon is currently the Sports editor and a reporter on the men's basketball and football beats. He was previously an assistant Sports editor on the women's basketball, softball, men's tennis and women's tennis beats and a reporter on the women's basketball and softball beats.
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