UCLA men's basketball embracing high expectations after Final Four run
With its NCAA men's basketball-best 11 national championships, UCLA is one of the “blue bloods” of the sport. But while the Bruins have been solid over the last decade-plus, they weren't living up to the program’s sky-high expectations, having not won a national championship since 1995 or reaching the Final Four since 2008 going into last season.
The 2020-21 campaign appeared to be much of the same, with a four-game losing streak heading into Selection Sunday leaving the Bruins squarely on the bubble. But the Bruins got in as a First Four team and made the most of their opportunity, soaring to the Final Four behind the bucket-getting Johnny Juzang, then taking Gonzaga to the limit in an all-time classic of a national semifinal.
With the Bruins returning everyone from last spring’s Final Four run, many are considering them a national title contender. Picked to win the Pac-12 nearly unanimously in the preseason media poll (the Bruins received 32 of 34 first-place votes), you can expect UCLA to be a top-5 team in the AP and coaches preseason polls.
Head coach Mick Cronin isn’t one to shy away from the high expectations.
“My goal coming to UCLA was winning the 12th national championship,” Cronin said at Pac-12 Men’s Basketball Media Day. “[My players] know what our goals are—to represent UCLA basketball. We have the greatest tradition in the history of our game. We don’t just play for us, we play for Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar], Reggie [Miller], Baron [Davis], Russell [Westbrook].”
The Bruins’ 2021-22 season outlook took a huge turn for the better when Juzang decided to return for his senior year. Juzang, whose 137 points in last year’s NCAA Tournament run were the second most all-time for a Bruin in a single NCAA postseason, rocketed his way onto NBA mock draft boards but couldn’t pass up the chance to run it back with a team that has its sights set on a natty.
“We've got the chance to do something so special,” Juzang said when asked about his decision to return to UCLA. “I want to feel ready to make an impact and contribute to a team, and I don’t think there’s a better place to get ready to do that than playing for Coach Cronin and playing for the Bruins on a special team… It’s almost a no-brainer when you consider that, put that together with what we have the opportunity to do this year.”
Juzang and Co. have their fans hyped for the upcoming season, and it has turned them into celebrities around campus.
“You can’t go out without someone asking for a picture nowadays,” junior guard Jaime Jaquez Jr. said with a laugh. “It’s all fun. It’s kind of what you ask for when you go to UCLA. You want the big stage. You want the recognition. It’s exciting to see because everyone is so prepared and so ready for you guys to have a great season and you don’t want to let them down.”