Key Departures: Chris Smith (NBA); Jalen Hill (Retired)
New In Town: Myles Johnson (<–Rutgers); Peyton Watson (#11); Will McClendon (#57)
State of the Program:
UCLA squeaked into the tournament, playing Sparty in the First Four round and going on one of the all-time runs in March Madness history, getting to the Final Four and being a half-court jumper from Gonzaga away from getting to the National Championship game. The Pac-12 was clearly undervalued heading into March and UCLA proved they have bought in to what new Coach Mick Cronin is selling. The defense got better and better as the year went on, and they adjusted to the loss of two of their best big men in Chris Smith and Jalen Hill to injury. Those two are the only players from last year’s group to leave the program, and they welcome in a small but mighty class of newcomers as well. All 5 starters from the Final Four group are back, along with several of the key contributors off the bench. Depth was an issue but Cronin was able to bring in several guys who should come in and contribute right away. Given all of that UCLA is a clear front runner, not just in the Pac-12 but in the country. Cronin’s philosophies that helped make Cincinnati a perennial contender has now been taken up a notch with the talent pool he has to work with at UCLA.
The first newcomer is former Rutgers big man Myles Johnson (SR). Johnson was a Big Ten All-D selection averaging 2.5 bpg along with 8 and 8 as an inside beast for Rutgers. Johnson fills a big void the Bruins had to overcome a year ago inside as they lost Smith and Hill to injury and neither is returning. He will be crucial inside alongside Cody Riley to help establish the glass and be a defensive anchor for this team. 5-star wing Peyton Watson (#11) also enters the program with high expectations. He is a long, lanky wing that has ability both as a shooter and on the attack. He is much more developed at scoring at the rim, but his jumper is decent and looks like it should translate even to the next level. He needs to fill out his frame some, but his length and athleticism should allow him to immediately contribute for the Bruins, even if it’s off the bench to start. The last newcomer is G Will McClendon (#57), who is a strong G who plays with an edge Mick Cronin has always sought in his players. He seeks contact when attacking the basket and also has an improving jumper that should continue to get better and more reliable. Unfortunately, he will have to miss year 1 with an ACL tear but Cronin will surely be excited about his future within the program.
It’s rare in college basketball for a team to go on a Final Four run and return all 5 starters from that team. That fact alone puts the Bruins right at the top in the National conversation to contend for a National Championship. With Juzang leading the show, as he did last March/April they have an All-American surrounded by 4 other guys who averaged double digits scoring. Throw in transfer big Myles Johnson and 5-star wing Peyton Watson and they’ve now improved their depth on top of returning all of their pieces from a year ago. The defense improved as the season went along, and if they can be a top-25 defense to go along with this dangerous offensive group they will be the best team in the country. Cronin’s big worry has to be weekend 1 of the tournament. The regular season they should really be pretty dominant, as they have the sting of the Gonzaga loss to lean on, and they didn’t win the Pac-12 regular season or tournament championships either, so plenty of goals still out there to accomplish. What history shows us though is teams that go on runs and return a lot often get upset early on in the tournament. Recent examples include 2016 Michigan St, who lost in the 1st round as a 2 seed after going to the Final Four, as well as Villanova in 2017 who lost in the 2nd round as a 1 seed a year after winning the National Championship. I think Cronin’s team will spend a majority of the season in the top-3 rankings, and are my pre-season #1 team, but they will be one of the team’s I’m nervous about in the first weekend of the tournament next season.