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UCLA men’s basketball might find out how good it is in first game

UCLA coach Mick Cronin instructs his players during a game against North Carolina in December 2019.
(John Locher / Associated Press)

It took UCLA roughly 4½ months to discover it could become a good basketball team in coach Mick Cronin’s first season.

Answers could come a lot sooner in Year 2.

Like Day 1.

The No. 22 Bruins’ season opener against San Diego State on Wednesday night at Viejas Arena in San Diego presents an opportunity to learn how they will respond to a brawny, brainy opponent picked to win the Mountain West Conference.

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The Aztecs return only two starters from the 30-win team that finished ranked No. 6 nationally but added graduate transfers Terrell Gomez and Joshua Tomaic. Gomez starred at Inglewood High and Cal State Northridge, averaging 19.8 points per game last season with the Matadors.

San Diego State is also unusually seasoned, with their best eight players either juniors or seniors. Junior forward Nathan Mensah returns after missing the final 19 games last season because of a blood clot in his lungs; he was such a prolific defender that his 22 blocks in only 13 games still led the team.

UCLA received a detailed scouting report from assistant coach Rod Palmer, who held the same post under San Diego State coach Brian Dutcher before joining Cronin’s staff prior to last season.

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“He’s let us know that they’re a very physical team,” Bruins junior guard Jules Bernard said. “They’re tough on defense, they’re gonna fight through handoffs and be physical and bump you.”

More informational nuggets came from UCLA redshirt junior forward Cody Riley, a former high school teammate of San Diego State guard Adam Seiko.

The game was added to both teams’ schedules after UCLA’s previous season opener in an Orlando, Fla., tournament was canceled because of COVID-19 testing protocol concerns. The Bruins will also play Pepperdine on Friday at Viejas Arena before returning home.

UCLA falls 38-35 at No. 11 Oregon, but at least the short-handed Bruins knew what they wanted to do and they had the talent to do it under Chip Kelly.

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UCLA’s opening matchup, which will be televised by CBS Sports Network, is not one that will allow the Bruins to ease into the season.

“The good thing about playing a San Diego State,” Cronin said, “you’re going to find out what you’re made of right off the bat and where we’re at and if we picked up where we left off.”

While Cronin acknowledged that neither team will probably look polished, there will be indicators whether the Bruins might be able to maintain the sort of tough-but-savvy play that allowed them to win 11 of their final 14 games last season before the coronavirus halted the Pac-12 and NCAA tournaments.

“It’s important to me that we get in there Wednesday night and compete on every possession,” Cronin said, “and we try to play together, we try to play smart, we try to physically compete.”

Etc.


Cronin said the Bruins would depart for San Diego after practice Tuesday and stay there through Friday, when they are scheduled to play Pepperdine at noon. Arrangements are being made for a Thanksgiving meal at the team hotel. “We’ll either have to eat in our rooms solo or we’ll have to eat outside,” Cronin said. “Even if we do eat outside, we would probably only have two guys at a table and spread out.”


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