Mick Cronin must think big in deciding which post player suits UCLA best for stretch run

UCLA coach Mick Cronin talks to Cody Riley on the sideline.
UCLA coach Mick Cronin talks to Cody Riley, who started the season as the starting big man for the Bruins but has lost minutes recently to Myles Johnson.
(Robert Franklin / Associated Press)

It’s a choice that UCLA coach Mick Cronin has increasingly pondered in recent weeks: Myles Johnson or Cody Riley?

For most of the season, it seemed the decision was made for him.

As a veteran of a Final Four team who complemented his interior scoring with a reliable jump shot, Riley began the season as the lone starting big man in the Bruins’ four-guard lineup. But a knee injury suffered in the first half of the season opener, combined with a nearly monthlong COVID-19 layoff for his team, kept Riley out for two months.

Into the void stepped Johnson, the graduate transfer from Rutgers who was known for defense and rebounding. He provided both as a capable replacement, starting every game Riley missed.


When the Bruins resumed their season in early January, Riley returned as well, moving back into the starting lineup. However, his scoring and rebounding lagged as he struggled to round into form, opening the door for Johnson to replace him as the starter last week.

Johnson proved a defensive and rebounding force in three consecutive victories, even if he was largely passive on offense, chucking nearly every offensive rebound to teammates on the perimeter. More of that passivity in the first half Thursday night against Oregon, compounded by the Bruins’ inability to make outside shots, prompted Cronin to replace Johnson with Riley to start the second half.

No. 12 UCLA was without several key players down the stretch and cold from long-range shooting in the 68-63 loss to Oregon on Thursday.

Feb. 24, 2022

“I was trying to get somebody that we could go to inside,” Cronin explained after the No. 12 Bruins’ 68-63 loss. “We needed to keep going into Cody and Jaime [Jaquez Jr.] in the block because of the way we were shooting the ball and we got away from it and that’s why we stopped scoring — that was the key to getting us back in the game.”

Riley scored 10 of his 12 points in the second half, reviving the debate about which big man Cronin should prioritize when UCLA (20-6 overall, 12-5 Pac-12 Conference) faces Oregon State (3-23, 1-15) on Saturday afternoon at Gill Coliseum in what amounts to a must-win situation for a Bruins team that has dropped four of its last five road games.

The flip side of Riley’s offensive barrage was that his defense and rebounding couldn’t match what Johnson provided. Johnson’s four rebounds in 13 minutes matched Riley’s output in that category in nearly 27 minutes. Riley also surrendered a flurry of six quick points to Oregon’s Franck Kepnang early in the second half as the Ducks extended their lead.

The biggest factor as to which UCLA big man gets the most minutes going forward could be the team’s needs. The Bruins fancy themselves a defense-first team but also showed the need for consistent offense in their loss to the Ducks on a night when they played reasonably good defense.


It didn’t help that three of UCLA’s top four scorers were either sidelined or hobbled by injury. Shooting guard Johnny Juzang departed late in the first half with an ankle injury, never to return. Jaquez continued to play on dual ankle braces while badly missing several jumpers. Point guard Tyger Campbell played through a bothersome shoulder injury that forced him to miss the previous game. The trio combined for 29 points, well below their season average of 40.

The statistics largely tell the story of Riley’s and Johnson’s respective strengths. Riley is averaging 8.0 points on 49.0% shooting but only 3.4 rebounds in 21.9 minutes per game. Johnson is averaging 4.0 points on 61.4% shooting to go with team highs of 6.0 rebounds and 1.4 blocked shots in 18.7 minutes per game.

Riley or Johnson? Johnson or Riley?

As the Bruins head into their most pivotal stretch of the season, the debate intensifies.



When: 1 p.m. Saturday

Where: Gill Coliseum, Corvallis, Ore.

On the air: TV: CBS; Radio: 570.

Update: Juzang’s availability remained in doubt because of the ankle injury he suffered against Oregon. One season after a run to the Elite Eight, the Beavers rank among the worst Power Five conference teams and have lost 13 consecutive games, including an excruciating 94-91 setback against USC on Thursday in double overtime.