From the First Four to the Final Four, the UCLA Bruins made history by becoming only the second team in NCAA Tournament history to achieve that feat. While last season’s run was maybe a little bit flukish, in the Tournament alone, it was undeniable that UCLA was one of the better teams in the sport. While last season’s run will be one that will be hard to replicate, a great place to start is by returning most of the roster that just made that run, headlined by Johnny Juzang and Jaime Jaquez, who were both massive in the Tournament. This year will be a true test of where this program is going, as they will hope to carry last year’s momentum into this year’s success.
The Bruins’ success in the Tournament last season came because of great shooting from Johnny Juzang, who made some unbelievably difficult shots in their run. Juzang now returns hoping to prove that run was a reality of what he is as a player, and not just a flash in the pan six games. Juzang is a 6’7 scoring guard that is a great shooter who can create his shots at will, he’s a good driver, mid-range scorer, and is a really good isolation player. Juzang will hope to contend for the National Player of the year award, which could happen if he plays at his NCAA Tournament level all season long, while he will hope to improve his draft stock in the process.
Next to Juzang, Jaime Jaquez is a really good overall basketball player, who while not the scorer that Juzang is, will have a major impact on this roster. Jaquez is a really good and efficient three-point shooter, a good defender, plus is a capable ball-handler and able to run certain sets for this team, while he’ll make a perfect guard for this roster. Tyger Campbell will run the point for this team, while Campbell is not a great shooter and is rather short, he makes a major impact when on the court. Campbell is a good on-ball defender, one of the best passing guards in the sport, a low turnover guard, and is capable of scoring off of drives, which makes it hard to overfocus on the superstar guards.
The Bruins also add in a five-star recruit in Peyton Watson, who will be one of the great athletes in the sport, while projects as a good modern-day four-man. Watson will have a nice impact at the four, he doesn’t necessarily have to score to make an impact, but he has a solid jumper, and is a capable ball-handler, and can make plays above the rim as well. Myles Johnson looks to fill out the starting-5, while Johnson is somewhat of an offensive liability, mostly due to struggling at the free-throw line. That said, his impact will be as one of the best interior bigs in the sport, as he’s a high-level shot-blocker, and rebounder, which is why they added him.
With these big additions, Cody Riley and Jules Bernard, who both started a season ago, will be reserved to being a sixth-man role for this team. Bernard is a 6’6 wing that is a good shooter, solid defender, and athlete, who was big for the Bruins a season ago and will hope to maybe push for that starting spot. Cody Riley was a bit worse as an overall player, while he mainly started because he was their only big, he very much improved throughout the season. The 6’9 forward is a good rebounder, and a better overall scorer than Johnson, but is nowhere near the defender that Johnson is.
Filling out the rotation is a group of pieces that will look to have somewhat of an impact on this roster in a limited role. Jake Kyman represents a perfect bench player, he’s somewhat of a liability defensively, which is why he shouldn’t play big minutes, but he’s a lights-out shooter, who if he gets hot, can carry a team to a win. Jaylen Clark played as the backup-5 at times a season ago, the 6’6 wing has good size and athleticism, while the strength to guard opponents bigs, which will be helpful. David Singleton is a good shooter, who like Kyman will have a role of trying to get hot and make an impact.
The interesting part to watch for this team is whether or not, that Bruins team from the NCAA Tournament, is the same team we’ll get this season or if that was just a fluke of tough shot-making, and a situation where the Bruins had an unreasonably large amount of good fortune go their way, as a case can be made for both. In the case for why I think this is a Top-5 team, I’ll say this, while a lot of March’s run was reliant on tough shot-making, they were playing really good basketball at the same time. Juzang isn’t going to average 22 PPG and make what feels like every tough shot, but he could average 18 PPG. Jaquez and Campbell aren’t going to play quite at their level, but they’ll improve. Add to that the fact that the Bruins added a consensus Top-10 player in Peyton Watson, who gives this team an elite-level athlete, and Myles Johnson, an elite-level rim protector, both of which were things missing a season ago, and this team has fewer question marks from a season ago.
When looking at UCLA, the important thing for them will be maintaining consistency throughout the regular season, which they did not do a season ago. They will need to take care of business early and often, they will have games where they won’t be as excited to play and they will need to win those games. They will have long road trips where they will have to win. Winning a Pac-12 title should be the goal and while the common thought is that will be easy, nothing ever is. Winning an NCAA Tournament title now will be the goal for UCLA as well, it’s one thing to make one fluky run to the Final Four, but should they back that up with another Final Four run, while potentially adding a Championship on top of it, they can prove the naysayers wrong while adding a school’s 12th National Championship.
PG: Tyger Campbell
SG: Johnny Juzang
SF: Jaime Jaquez
PF: Peyton Watson
C: Myles Johnson
B1: Jules Bernard
B2: Cody Riley
B3: Jake Kyman
B4: Jaylen Clark
B5: David Singleton