UCLA faces new challenges even as the shocking end to its season remains fresh
The questions will transcend who’s coming and going during this offseason of unprecedented uncertainty.
UCLA players had more on their minds than basketball Thursday after learning their season was over upon the cancellation of the Pac-12 Conference and NCAA tournaments.
“Part of them, it’s like, ‘Hey, can I even go outside, coach?’ ” said Bruins coach Mick Cronin, who advised everybody to wash their hands and stay away from large crowds amid the coronavirus outbreak.
It was a new March madness at the end of a season in which UCLA finished 19-12, securing second place in the Pac-12 and earning a shot at an at-large berth in the NCAA tournament. ESPN analyst Joe Lunardi projected the Bruins among the last four teams selected for the tournament, requiring a theoretical play-in game against North Carolina State next week in Dayton, Ohio.
While some coaches called for the official release of the tournament bracket as a reward for their players, Cronin said there were more important things to worry about such as the academic implications of campus shutdowns and dorms being closed.
The NCAA is giving spring sports athletes whose 2020 seasons were majorly disrupted by the coronavirus another year of eligibility.
“We’ve all got to worry about academics right now,” Cronin said. “Audibles were called on how to do their finals. There’s no in-class finals, so everybody’s got to do their finals online. ... Right now, I’m worried about finishing strong academically. That’s important.”
On- and off-campus recruiting was suspended until further notice, though it might not matter considering California called off its high school state championships. Cronin joked that FaceTime had become his best friend.
In a brand new basketball world, the hope is that UCLA’s roster will look essentially the same next season. Fifth-year seniors Prince Ali and Alex Olesinski will be gone and highly touted freshmen Daishen Nix and Jaylen Clark will arrive, but that might not be the extent of the roster churn.
Junior guard Chris Smith has to decide whether to return for one more season or make himself available for the NBA draft after becoming the Pac-12’s most improved player and the Bruins’ go-to scorer. Redshirt sophomore forwards Jalen Hill and Cody Riley face the same decision after having vastly enhanced their games.
“When we have our banquet,” Cronin said, “you could give most improved to Chris Smith, Jalen Hill or Cody Riley.”
The balance of UCLA’s roster should return intact, barring transfers, providing a deep rotation that already is well acquainted with the style its coach wants heading into his second season.
First-year UCLA gymnastics coach Chris Waller knew the Bruins would face challenges, but he’s pleased with what the team accomplished.
“I’m optimistic that we would have a great core group of guys returning next year; extremely optimistic,” Cronin said.
Nix is expected to orchestrate it all as a high-end point guard whose college stay likely will be short. Clark is a tenacious defender and natural scorer who should complement the returning players.
There’s a chance UCLA could add more newcomers if proposed NCAA legislation that would allow immediate eligibility for one-time transfers passes this spring. The Bruins will have at least one open roster spot to fill after the midseason departure of redshirt freshman forward Shareef O’Neal for Louisiana State.
UCLA hopes to hold on to the camaraderie that was built by a team that started the season 8-9 before finishing on an 11-3 run, the early adversity forging an ironclad resolve by season’s end.
“They became a team. They cared about each other. They weren’t a group of individuals wearing the same jersey,” Cronin said. “They became a team in every sense of the word.”
Freshman shooting guard Jake Kyman alluded to the bond in a farewell-to-the-season tweet accompanied by photos of players celebrating and huddling, arms around one another.
“Not how I would of liked it to end,” Kyman tweeted, “but easily the best team I’ve ever been a part of and am so thankful for the knowledge and memories. Definitely was nothing short of amazing and what we accomplished and did was special. Thank you seniors. I’ll be back!”
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