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UCLA’s basketball team picked to win Pac-12 in media poll

UCLA's Chris Smith and Tyger Campbell leap into the air and bump shoulders during a Feb. 15 game.
UCLA guard Chris Smith celebrates with teammate Tyger Campbell during a game against Washington on Feb. 15 at Pauley Pavilion.
(Chris Carlson / Associated Press)

UCLA basketball will no longer be a scrappy, overachieving operation under coach Mick Cronin.

The Bruins were picked to win the Pac-12 Conference in the preseason media poll released Thursday, the first time that’s happened in nine years. The designation might prevent UCLA from catching anyone by surprise during a season it hopes to open Nov. 25 on the road against San Diego State.

“It makes my job harder because it kind of takes the hunger away a little bit from guys,” Cronin said during a videoconference with reporters. “Maybe they’re not mature enough to understand that all it does is help your opponents because their coaches early in the season can say, ‘Well, you better be ready to play, they’re picked to win their league.’ ”

The voting was so close that if it were a presidential election, a recount might have been in order. UCLA received nine first-place votes and 251 points, edging second-place Arizona State by just five points after the Sun Devils received five first-place votes. Defending conference champion Oregon, which was picked third, received seven first-place votes and 241 points.

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It was the closest vote among the top three selections in 37 years of preseason projections. The national media disagreed with its Pac-12 brethren, putting No. 18 Arizona State and No. 20 Oregon ahead of No. 22 UCLA in the Associated Press poll. The Los Angeles Times does not participate in media voting per its longstanding policy.

Stanford was picked to finish fourth in the Pac-12, followed by Arizona, USC, Colorado, Utah, Washington, California, Washington State and Oregon State.

It will come as no surprise that the media doesn’t always get it right. UCLA was picked eighth last season but finished second, only one game behind Oregon. The last time the Bruins were picked to win the Pac-12 they lost their 2011-12 season opener to Loyola Marymount and finished in a tie for fifth in the conference standings.

UCLA’s Dec. 19 game against Kentucky in Cleveland will be the Bruins’ only nonconference game in the 2020-21 season played outside Southern California.

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UCLA’s returning talent made it the top pick heading into this season. The Bruins will bring back all five starters, including senior guard Chris Smith, a member of the preseason All-Pac-12 first team. Point guard Tyger Campbell was selected for the second team, and forward Jalen Hill and guard Jamie Jaquez Jr. were honorable mention.

“We still pretty much have the same guys from last season,” Smith said. “There won’t be the preseason hiccups like we had last season, just getting to know coach Cronin. Everybody knows what we’ve gotta do and everyone knows what has to happen, so hopefully as soon as we get the new guys rolling, we’ll have that momentum back.”

Smith said Johnny Juzang, a transfer from Kentucky, was giving sophomore Jake Kyman a run for best sharpshooter on the team.

The Bruins could momentarily ponder what might be an even deeper roster in 2021-22 after the school announced the signing of Peyton Watson, a 6-foot-7 guard from Long Beach Poly High, and Will McClendon, a 6-4 guard from Las Vegas Bishop Gorman. Cronin described McClendon as a winner who could shoot the ball and said Watson reminded him of former Bruins and Lakers forward Trevor Ariza.

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“I’ve seen him play a high school game,” Cronin said of Watson, “and he did everything but take tickets and sell popcorn.”


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