Men's Basketball Preps in Portland for NCAA Tournament
PORTLAND, Ore. – The No. 4-seed UCLA men's basketball team spent its first full day in Portland on Wednesday, as preparations were quickly underway for Thursday's four NCAA Tournament games at the Moda Center.
UCLA's first-round contest this Thursday against No. 13-seed Akron (24-9) will begin at approximately 6:50 p.m. (PT). The Bruins' game will be nationally televised on TBS, while UCLA's radio broadcast will be available on AM 570 (KLAC) in the Los Angeles region.
After a mid-day practice on Wednesday at nearby Portland State University, the Bruins spent a portion of time at the Moda Center for a late afternoon press conference and open practice. Veteran players Jaime Jaquez Jr. and Johnny Juzang answered questions in the press conference, prior to Mick Cronin, The Michael Price Family UCLA Men's Head Basketball Coach.
Wednesday's Press Conference: Coach Cronin | J. Jaquez Jr. and J. Juzang
"We're excited to be here, obviously, it's a different experience for our guys," said Cronin. "We don't have anybody on our team that played in the NCAA Tournament with the public practice, seeing you guys in person. This is all new to them. We were in the bubble last year. That was all they know. They've been asking me questions the last couple days about all of this type of stuff. I try and not take it for granted. I realize that, I wasn't even thinking about things being back to normal, but the guys are wide-eyed to be able to experience this in a non-pandemic situation."
Indeed for these student-athletes, this season's NCAA Tournament will offer a more traditional version of the annual March event, given that COVID-19 parameters severely restricted the movement of players in Indianapolis one year ago (in the "bubble" atmosphere).
Every player who competed for the Bruins in last season's NCAA Tournament has returned to this year's team. UCLA's entire starting five from last year's national semifinal game has been back on the court this year – Tyger Campbell, Jules Bernard, Johnny Juzang, Jaime Jaquez Jr. and Cody Riley.
UCLA added a pair of freshmen last summer, in guards Peyton Watson and Will McClendon. Also joining the Bruins' team was graduate student Myles Johnson, who earned his undergraduate degree in electrical and computer engineering from Rutgers in May of 2021.
"We have great team chemistry," Cronin said. "These guys really like each other and they're all tremendous guys. We don't have overwhelming size and athleticism, like some of other teams, so we have to execute and play great team defense. But what I'd tell you, it's a really good group of guys. They're really intelligent, they're really good people, they really enjoy each other. Which I think is important, because when we've had tough times, we can look at each other and ask, 'What can we do to get better?' instead of pointing fingers. That is why we've been able to get through the COVID and the multiple injuries that we have dealt with this year."
The Bruins had gone 8-1 with a road win at Marquette on Saturday, Dec. 11, before the team endured a two-week-plus COVID-19 pause through late December. Since returning to the court with a non-conference win against Long Beach State on Jan. 6, the Bruins have gone 17-6.
UCLA has returned to the NCAA Tournament for the seventh time in the last 10 seasons after having advanced to the Final Four last season. UCLA compiled a 25-7 overall record this year, finishing in second place in the Pac-12's regular-season standings with a 15-5 record.
"Just going throughout the season, we started to figure things out, figure out what we needed to do, and it's a whole learning experience throughout the entire season," said Jaquez Jr., in reference to the Bruins' late-season success during each of his three seasons. "As you go on, you get better and learn from things that you'd made mistakes on in the past. I think that has just been a trend, in the past three years that I've been here, of learning from our mistakes and just getting better throughout the year."
The winner of this Thursday's game between UCLA and Akron will take on either No. 5-seed Saint Mary's or No. 12-seed Indiana in a second-round contest on Saturday, March 19.