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Christon Chronicles: UCLA men’s basketball takes a step forward despite Sweet 16 loss

Senior guard Jules Bernard (left), redshirt junior guard Tyger Campbell (left center), redshirt senior forward Cody Riley (center), junior guard Johnny Juzang (right center) and junior guard/forward Jaime Jaquez Jr. (right) take the floor during UCLA men’s basketball’s NCAA Tournament run. (Ashley Kenney/Photo editor)

By Jon Christon

March 27, 2022 3:08 p.m.

This post was updated March 28 at 1:01 a.m.

Some will write the Bruins’ season off as a disappointment.

After all, UCLA men’s basketball’s NCAA Tournament campaign ended in the Sweet 16 on Friday after the blue and gold advanced all the way to the Final Four a year ago. Despite nearly the entire roster returning from that 2021 run, the team couldn’t live up to the high expectations, likely ending a chapter of UCLA basketball in the process.

Was UCLA in a position to beat North Carolina and earn an Elite Eight berth? Probably. Would a victory have led to a second straight Final Four with only No. 15 seed Saint Peter’s standing in the way? Also probably.

But make no mistake, this season wasn’t a step back.

Instead, it cemented the Bruins’ leap forward back into relevancy.

This rise out of mediocrity began with the first core of players in the coach Mick Cronin era, a group that should hold a special place in the hearts of the Bruin faithful despite lacking the same success as UCLA teams of old.

No five-man unit has played more for the blue and gold across the last two seasons than redshirt junior guard Tyger Campbell, junior guard Johnny Juzang, senior guard Jules Bernard, junior guard/forward Jaime Jaquez Jr. and redshirt senior forward Cody Riley. While each player has had vastly different careers in Westwood, they all helped usher in a new era of UCLA basketball.

Just look how far the program has come since their respective arrivals.

Two of the players – with a third injured on the sidelines – donned the blue and gold at one of the program’s worst moments: a four-game losing streak that put an abrupt end to the Steve Alford era in 2018.

Four were there for Cronin’s up-and-down inaugural campaign, which featured losses to Hofstra and Cal State Fullerton that clouded the first-year coach’s early tenure.

All five were also in Indianapolis, celebrating the team’s first Final Four in more than a decade as America watched the Cinderella Bruins.

And, finally, the five players were all in Philadelphia as UCLA’s season ended with a loss to North Carolina on Friday.

This progression alone shows just how far UCLA has come in recent years. Under Alford, the ceiling was the Sweet 16 – if it even made it to the NCAA Tournament. That, somehow, was good enough for Alford to earn a pair of contract extensions, even with UCLA’s storied history.

Cronin, however, has risen the program’s modern expectations in just three seasons. Sweet 16s are now the floor.

(Ashley Kenney/Photo editor)
Coach Mick Cronin walks back to the bench during the NCAA Tournament. (Ashley Kenney/Photo editor)

The ultimate growth of the team is epitomized by the five Bruins, a group that bridged the gap between UCLA’s best and worst moments of the last few years.

Where would UCLA be had Riley left the program after the shoplifting incident in China? If Juzang hadn’t bet on himself when he transferred from Kentucky? If Bernard, Campbell and Jaquez didn’t stick with the new regime after they had already committed to play for Alford?

It was only fitting that they were five of the last Bruins to grace the court as the buzzer sounded in Philadelphia, figuratively turning the page in Westwood.

So what’s next?

In all likelihood, those five Bruins have played their last minutes together. While each player has eligibility remaining because of the pandemic, I wouldn’t expect Riley or Bernard to come back given the sentiments Cronin shared in his last few press conferences. Juzang will also likely go after testing the draft waters a year ago, though his sub-par close to the season could change things.

Juzang takes a jumper over North Carolina forward Leaky Black in UCLA's Sweet 16 loss Friday. (David Rimer/assistant Photo editor)
Junior guard Johnny Juzang takes a jumper over North Carolina forward Leaky Black in UCLA’s Sweet 16 loss Friday. (David Rimer/Assistant Photo editor)

On the other end, Campbell will likely come back with two years of eligibility remaining, and I expect a Jaquez reunion is in the cards with sister Gabriela Jaquez set to join UCLA women’s basketball next season.

Regardless of who comes and goes, the five Bruins have already helped set the stage for the next generation.

Senior guard David Singleton and redshirt senior center Myles Johnson – who are both expected to return next season – are ready to fill the leadership void. Meanwhile, players such as sophomore guard Jaylen Clark and freshman guard/forward Peyton Watson have spent the last year learning and are ready for their moment.

The success of the new era of UCLA basketball has translated into recruiting as well, with Cronin welcoming five-star guard Amari Bailey, five-star center Adem Bona and four-star guard Dylan Andrews to Westwood in 2022.

Simply put, UCLA is in good hands. Cronin – who is now under contract until 2028 – has the program strumming to its highest degree, and the sky is the limit for the future.

But as the Bruins venture into a new chapter of UCLA basketball, Campbell, Juzang, Bernard, Jaime Jaquez Jr. and Riley have to be remembered as the ones who rose the bar and lifted the program out of mediocrity.

Though don’t take it from me.

“These guys did a great job of making UCLA basketball relevant again,” Cronin said.

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