More March magic could await No. 2 UCLA when season begins this week
There was drama, there were upsets, there were unexpected heroes during UCLA’s run from the First Four to the Final Four last season.
It could be a madhouse inside Tyger Campbell’s room on the ninth floor of the Indianapolis Marriott Downtown. That was the nightly gathering spot where the Bruins played one another in marathon sessions of Super Smash Bros. after being given Nintendo Switches during the NCAA tournament.
“Very loud, very rowdy,” guard Jaime Jaquez Jr. recalled. “It was almost more competitive in there than it was on the court.”
The battles carried over to a not-so-friendly round of Topgolf, where Jaquez and teammate Johnny Juzang each claimed supremacy over the other — and continued to do so six months later.
Said Jaquez recently: “You know, there’s no debate. I won. Whatever he said, not true.”
Responded Juzang: “It wasn’t even close. I took him down.”
Nobody on this team concedes defeat. Not after falling behind by 11 points at halftime against Michigan State. Not against favored Brigham Young. Not against second-seeded Alabama and its speedy guards or top-seeded Michigan and its towering lineup. What was widely expected to be a stay of a few nights ended up earning loads of Marriott points.
When it was over, Gonzaga’s 40-foot miracle shot banking off the backboard and through the net, the season had ended but the appreciation for what had transpired only deepened. Before walking off the court inside Lucas Oil Stadium, the Bruins huddled, arms slung around shoulders, sharing how proud they were and how much they loved one another.
UCLA beat Chico State, 100-61, in an exhibition game at Pauley Pavilion on Thursday.
“It was a beautiful moment,” Juzang said. “You don’t get that often where every single guy is playing for one another, leaving it out there. That type of camaraderie is something special to be a part of.”
It was so special that no one would give it up. Juzang and Jaquez spurned the NBA draft for another college season. Fringe contributors who could have entered the transfer portal happily stayed.
Every player who appeared in the Bruins’ NCAA tournament run returns for a season that starts Tuesday at Pauley Pavilion against Cal State Bakersfield, making what happens over the next six months not so much an epilogue as a final chapter. There could be more March magic for the team that captivated a city, if not a country.
“It’s like a feedback loop,” Juzang said. “You want to keep making that happen.”
One thing UCLA won’t reprise is its role as a plucky underdog. The Bruins are ranked No. 2 in the nation and overwhelmingly favored to win the Pac-12 Conference while becoming fashionable picks to win the school’s first national championship since 1995.
Their status upgrade comes courtesy of not just who’s back but who has arrived to join in on the fun. Freshman guard Peyton Watson showed with a crossover dribble that he followed with a monstrous dunk during the Bruins’ exhibition last week that he’ll often be the most electrifying player on the court. Graduate transfer center Myles Johnson and his massive hands are so gifted at grabbing the ball that it seems he might average a rebound a minute.
“Those two guys,” coach Mick Cronin said, “have really taken us to another level.”
There seems to be almost zero chance either newcomer disrupts the team’s hard-won chemistry. Watson’s first act upon entering the practice court is to seek out teammates and shake their hands. The 6-foot-10 Johnson is so easygoing that when he played at Rutgers his teammates had to challenge him to be more aggressive.
And don’t fret over his nickname, Myles the Monster.
“A lot of people call me a gentle giant,” Johnson said, “so definitely the monster is like a fuzzy monster.”
One possible disturbance looms. With Watson, Johnson and sophomore Jaylen Clark on the same roster as the starters who powered the Bruins’ Final Four run, the team possesses at least eight players worthy of a starting role.
One solution would be rotating lineups based on matchups, something Cronin has said he’s considering. Another would be to play faster while exerting more defensive pressure, necessitating extra minutes for players coming off the bench.
“Look,” said Cronin, whose team unleashed a noticeably quicker tempo on the way to scoring 100 points during its exhibition, “we’re going to have a group of guys that just accept that I can only start five guys and that everybody’s going to play.”
Having so much experience has its benefits. Assistant coach Rod Palmer said Cronin was already in late-season mode, teaching the intricacies of his defense. That’s the side of the ball where the Bruins need the most improvement after finishing last season No. 11 nationally in offensive efficiency, according to the metrics of Ken Pomeroy, while ranking only No. 46 in defensive efficiency.
A master of the mantra, Cronin has crafted a new one to help his veterans keep their edge: Experience is irrelevant if you make rookie mistakes.
“We should know what wins, we should know what works and we know that we all have to be on the same page just to give yourself a chance — that doesn’t guarantee winning,” Cronin said. “So that’s the challenge for us is to make sure that besides staying healthy, the most important thing is making sure we’re playing with one mind.”
Juzang should have that covered. Before each of UCLA’s NCAA tournament games, the shooting guard would tell his teammates that nothing could be guaranteed beyond their effort and willingness to embrace the challenge.
UCLA hosted ESPN “College GameDay,” so Bill Walton wanted to make sure no one felt forgotten and listed a litany of Bruins luminaries among other rants.
“The setup in the postseason is win or go home,” Juzang said, “and luckily we have competitive, tough guys, so we didn’t want to go home.”
Those wins led to some quiet admiration in the team hotel after the Bruins reached their first Final Four since 2008. Players piled into a room and looked at one another, no one uttering a word, their expressions saying it all.
“We were just like, ‘Wow, we did it … we’re coming along,’ ” guard David Singleton said. “So that’s probably the best memory, just appreciating each other in these moments because you don’t get those moments back.”
You just have to create new ones.
Go beyond the scoreboard
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