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UCLA coach Mick Cronin envisions players forgoing extra year of eligibility

UCLA guard Chris Smith drives against Arizona State forward Mickey Mitchell
UCLA guard Chris Smith drives against Arizona State forward Mickey Mitchell on Feb. 27 at Pauley Pavilion.
(Ringo H.W. Chiu / Associated Press)

The calculus of college basketball rosters is changing. UCLA coach Mick Cronin now must navigate not only who’s leaving early but also who wants to extend their stay.

The NCAA earlier this week granted winter sport athletes an additional year of eligibility amid the COVID-19 pandemic, meaning that Bruins senior guard Chris Smith, a candidate for the Pac-12 Conference player of the year, could stay an additional season.

In theory, anyway.

“He’s not coming back for a fifth year,” Cronin told The Times on Friday. “Let’s just get that out to our fan base now. He’s going to graduate and get his chance at the NBA for sure.”

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Cronin said he didn’t anticipate the extra year of eligibility having a big impact on the Bruins because many players leave for the NBA before their senior season. The players that Cronin said he envisioned most likely using the additional year were late-bloomers who wanted to better position themselves for the NBA and those who wanted to get a master’s degree.

UCLA basketball coach Cori Close said the program fully supports the decision of guards Kiara Jefferson and Kayla Owens to not play this season.

What about players who wanted an extra year of college basketball?

“You need to turn off the Disney Channel,” Cronin cracked.

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Mid-major schools could be hurt most by the eligibility extension, Cronin said, because it would allow players who blossom as seniors and want to experience major basketball to leave while capitalizing on the proposed new one-time transfer waiver that could take effect for the 2021-22 academic year.

The preponderance of Bruins won’t want to stick around for an additional year, Cronin said.

“It’s great that they’re going to have the option, good for them because their careers have been interrupted,” Cronin said. “But you’re talking about guys that are going to have their degree in their hand and have played four years of college basketball, so I would say the prevailing thought would be that most of those guys would want to get on with their career.

“But for the next three years, it’s a conversation you’re going to have to have with your so-called seniors that could be juniors if they want to be. So you’re going to have to have that conversation with those guys so you know how to recruit.”

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Scheduled success?

UCLA’s seven-game nonconference schedule is starting to take shape.

The Bruins will open the season on Nov. 25 as part of the four-team Wooden Legacy in Orlando, Fla. Cronin said he couldn’t confirm reports that UCLA would play Seton Hall in its opener followed by Kansas or Boise State a day later, “but that does look like how that’s going to go.” The field was originally scheduled to include Virginia and Georgetown before they backed out.

Everything remains in flux for coach Mick Cronin and UCLA basketball a day after the Pac-12 Conference cleared teams to play as soon as Nov. 25.

UCLA will play games against San Diego on Dec. 9 and Marquette on Dec. 11 at Pauley Pavilion, as well as a neutral-site game against Kentucky in the CBS Sports Classic at a date and venue to be announced. Cronin said he was hoping to complete the nonconference schedule with home games against Long Beach State and another West Coast opponent.

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As part of an expanded 20-game Pac-12 schedule that’s yet to be finalized, the Bruins will play Oregon and California before Christmas, Cronin said.

Practice starts

The Bruins opened practice on Wednesday, commencing a stretch in which they will hold 30 sessions in 42 days before their first game.

That is, if they’re fortunate.

“Every day we don’t get shut down is a good day,” Cronin said, noting the continued spread of the novel coronavirus.

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Cronin shuddered to think what might happen if his team couldn’t practice for an extended period before its opener.

“Do you have your offense in? Do you even have enough stuff?” Cronin said. “Are you organized to even begin? There’s just so many challenges right now.”

UCLA is not only trying to coalesce as a team, but also to get in shape after players dispersed for six months amid the pandemic. One early standout has been junior guard David Singleton.

“He clearly is in the best shape of his life,” Cronin said. “The six months we were away from each other, he clearly was dedicated to getting his body in better shape and better condition.”

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Cronin said his team was further along from an organizational and fundamental standpoint than it was at this point last year because it’s returning so many players with experience. All five of the Bruins’ primary starters are back.


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