Johnny Juzang confident he can still be the March Madness leader UCLA needs
At some point, when their defense falters or the other team is making a push, they will need him to be that guy again.
The guy who can get his own shot. The guy who can score in bunches. The guy who can carry an offense.
A year ago, Johnny Juzang did all of that on a nightly basis. UCLA’s shooting guard lugged his team from the First Four to the Final Four with an epic scoring spree, averaging 22.8 points in six spine-tingling NCAA tournament performances.
A year later, he’s barely making a postseason ripple.
When he scored 14 points against Saint Mary’s in the second round last weekend, awakening with 12 points in the second half, it was hailed as a massive triumph. His output against the Gaels represented only the third time in the last seven games that he had reached double figures.
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Crazy as it sounds, Juzang might have become the quietest leading scorer on any team left playing.
A sprained ankle suffered last month didn’t help. Neither did all those highlight tapes circulating that have made Juzang the centerpiece of every defensive game plan since he shredded one team after another last March.
“You’ve just got to take what the defense gives you and just be ready to make basketball plays, winning plays,” Juzang told The Times on Tuesday as he prepared to board the team bus headed for Los Angeles International Airport and a cross-country flight to face North Carolina in an East Regional semifinal. “If the team scores, we score, so that’s what it’s about. Yeah, [the other team] might take away something, but it can open up something strategically for somebody else.”
UCLA persevered with Juzang averaging 11.5 points in the first two rounds, beating spunky Akron and Saint Mary’s. He complemented that modest scoring production with three steals in the first game and eight rebounds in the second game while taking shots within the flow of the offense. The fourth-seeded Bruins (27-7) will likely need more — possibly much more — from Juzang in the scoring department Friday night in Philadelphia against North Carolina (26-9), a No. 8 seed that’s playing like a championship contender after knocking off top-seeded Baylor in the second round.
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With star UCLA forward Jaime Jaquez Jr.’s availability unknown after he sprained his right ankle late in the game against Saint Mary’s, the need for Juzang to revert to his old NCAA tournament form could be especially acute. Jaquez did not practice Tuesday, though he appeared to be walking fine as he stepped aboard the team bus and he’s widely expected to at least try to play against the Tar Heels.
Jaquez has averaged 15 points in the NCAA tournament thanks to an impressive array of low-post moves, trailing only point guard Tyger Campbell’s average of 16 points among the Bruins. Guard Jules Bernard has provided another double-figure scorer with 12 points per game, but the Bruins have gotten essentially no offensive production from their post players. Forward Cody Riley is averaging 5.5 points and center Myles Johnson hasn’t scored in limited minutes.
After his team made it this far behind scrappy defense and a trickle of offense, UCLA coach Mick Cronin acknowledged the need for sustained shot-making that Juzang can deliver on college basketball’s biggest stage. As a sophomore, he scored at least 23 points in four NCAA tournament games last season, dropping 28 on Michigan in the Elite Eight and 29 on Gonzaga in the Final Four.
Now would be the perfect time for an encore.
“You’ve got to go out there with confidence and let it rip and you’ve got to perform,” Cronin said, “because against a team like North Carolina, to think you’re going to be able to win it with just great defense in a rock fight is probably not realistic — they’ve got too much firepower and there’s times in a game when we’re going to have to match them and score with them, and I think that’s the rest of the tournament.”
After returning for his junior season to boost his NBA draft stock and help the Bruins win their first national title since 1995, Juzang’s presumed final college chapter hasn’t been storybook stuff. In addition to the sprained ankle, he contracted COVID-19 after the team’s 26-day layoff caused by the virus and injured a hip when he fell off a scooter.
His statistics largely mirror those of last season, Juzang averaging a team-high 15.7 points on 43.4% shooting, including 35.5% from beyond the arc. He’s widely projected as a second-round draft pick after having been a borderline first-round pick at the end of last season.
Recently, there have been flickers of that same March magic. He sank a three-pointer at the halftime buzzer of the Pac-12 tournament championship against Arizona, unleashing a celebratory shimmy, on the way to 16 points. He gave a confident head shake after draining a three-pointer only 20 seconds into the NCAA tournament opener against Akron before missing his final three shots from beyond the arc and finishing with just nine points on three-for-11 shooting.
That’s been the norm recently for someone who hasn’t reached 20 points since tallying 23 against Stanford on Feb. 8. Juzang sprained his right ankle late in the first half against Oregon on Feb. 24 and sat out the next two games before returning against USC on March 5, starting the slog to regain his rhythm.
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Following Juzang’s latest single-digit performance, Cronin said he needed to help free his top scorer against swarming defenses. The Bruins sprang Juzang with screens for two baseline jumpers in the second half against Saint Mary’s as part of a personal 6-0 run that pushed UCLA into a 10-point lead.
For anyone wondering, Juzang said he feels no pressure to reprise his starring role from a year ago.
“No, man,” Juzang said. “The only pressure is on myself to get to this national championship, so that’s the goal, man. That’s the only goal. I want to contribute to winning as many ways as I can, so doing whatever it takes.”
At some point, in some frantic moment, that’s probably going to involve becoming the go-to guy once more.
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