UCLA’s Cody Riley could return as soon as Saturday against Marquette
They’re the fourth-ranked team in the nation, have won seven of eight games and are about to improve significantly.
“We’re 10 points or more better with him,” UCLA coach Mick Cronin said Thursday, “that’s just a fact.”
Him would be Cody Riley, the redshirt senior power forward who could be on the verge of returning from the sprained medial collateral ligament in his left knee that has sidelined him since the first half of the Bruins’ season opener against Cal State Bakersfield on Nov. 9.
Riley has practiced this week in a limited role, going one play with teammates before taking two plays off, while wearing a black knee brace. He moved somewhat stiffly during the portion of practice open to the media Thursday, jumping to lay in a lob from Jaylen Clark and setting a hard screen on a ball-movement drill.
The UCLA men’s basketball team will not play Washington on Sunday because seven individuals within the Huskies’ program are under COVID protocols.
Cronin said Riley’s knee has healed sufficiently but his conditioning needed to progress further. The coach intended to decide after practice Friday whether Riley could return when the Bruins (7-1) face Marquette (8-2) on Saturday at Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee.
“I would never put him out there unless he was totally confident in being out there,” Cronin said, “so he could see limited minutes Saturday, he could see limited minutes against Alabama State” on Wednesday at Pauley Pavilion.
Riley’s return would help the Bruins in multiple ways beyond the averages of 10 points and 5.4 rebounds per game he posted last season. It would bring a floor-spacing big man who can hit 15-foot jumpers and is an excellent passer out of the post in addition to an improving defender.
“He’s a rare player where he has a lot of size and strength,” guard Jules Bernard said, “but he’s extremely mobile and can move like a wing and he’s worked tirelessly on his shot throughout the years. So just having him to space the floor and also on defense, being able to switch on screens, he’s a huge part of our team.”
Follow along as voice of UCLA Josh Lewin explains why he pushed to cover a basketball game in Vegas and football game in Pasadena on the same day.
The absence of Riley provided additional playing time for Myles Johnson as a starter and Kenneth Nwuba as the first big man off the bench, opportunities both have largely thrived in over the season’s first month. Adding Riley would allow the team to dabble with a two-post lineup as well as use Johnson primarily in situations that call for a better defender.
“Cody’s great in the stretch midrange game too and he works very well in that area and I work well in the low post,” Johnson said, “so I think that’s gonna be a good 1-2 punch.”
He’s back too
Junior guard Jaime Jaquez Jr. returned to practice earlier this week after hitting his head on the court with a thud so hard on Dec. 1 that it could be heard in the upper reaches of Pauley Pavilion.
Jaquez left the game against Colorado in the first half and did not return despite being cleared by doctors, Cronin saying at the time he wanted to protect his player because symptoms could start hours after the fall.
Had UCLA’s game against Washington scheduled for last weekend not been canceled by COVID-19 issues within the Huskies’ program, Cronin said, Jaquez would have been held out of that game as well.
“He would have tried” to play, Cronin said. “His Dad said, ‘You can drop him on his head and play him,’ but I told him, ‘You’ve been hanging out with my Dad too much.’ ”
UCLA will have had a 10-day break between games by the time it plays Marquette, not that the Bruins have been all that idle. Players are taking final exams this week and have used the extra practice time to focus on things besides game preparation.
“Having some time to go back and just worry about your own team is an advantage,” Cronin said. “You can pick things we need to do a better job of as coaches and just focus on offensive execution, focus on late-game situations, it gives you a little more time.”
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