April 3rd, 1995. The UCLA Bruins have just won their 11th national title in program history. The 89-78 victory over #6 Arkansas took place in Seattle's Kingdome, an arena five years away from demolition in a city that no longer has an NBA team.
Ed O'Bannon led the way for UCLA, scoring 30 points to go along with an impressive 17 rebounds en route to winning the Most Outstanding Player of the NCAA Tournament. In 2010, he would sue the NCAA, having retired from professional basketball thirteen years prior.
It's been a quarter-century of suffering for Bruins fans since their most recent triumph. During that time, it's been a slew of unfortunate circumstances for college basketball's winningest program: mediocre head coaches, rosters that failed to meet their potential, and three Final Four teams that fell agonizingly short of a championship.
So, for this year's #3 UCLA squad, the goal isn't just to win the always-competitive Pac-12, or even to reach the Final Four like they did last season. Mick Cronin, Johnny Juzang and company have their eyes set on winning a title above all else.
The question now is will they become champions, or will they fall short of the high bar set by the legends who came before them?
*Stats and rankings courtesy of Sports Reference CBB
Riding With Riley
It goes without saying that Johnny Juzang is the most valuable player on the Bruins' roster. Having recently tested positive for Covid-19, Cronin will have to get creative when it comes to replicating the star junior's offensive production (18.1 Pts, .487 FG
Picking the second most important piece of the puzzle is a much harder task. It could be do-it-all forward Jaime Jaquez, a scrappy shooter capable of covering multiple positions on the court. Senior Jules Bernard is currently second on the team in scoring, while Tyger Campbell provides plenty of playmaking at point guard.
However, none of those previously mention provide much size in addition to their offensive finesse. Senior Cody Riley, who missed the start of the season with a knee injury before returning in January, might be the key to UCLA's title hopes. The forward is a bit of a do-it-all player; he doesn't get a ton of points (8.1 career PPG), boards (4.5 Reb.), or assists (1.0 Ast.), but he does enough of everything to keep defenses guessing. On a team as height-challenged as the Bruins, Riley's 6'9 frame also gives the interior a massive boost, as only Rutgers transfer Myles Johnson poses much of a threat to opposing big men.
To see Riley's effect on UCLA, look no further than the game against Gonzaga on November 23rd, one he missed due to injury. In a Bulldogs blowout, it was obvious that the Bruins simply didn't have the horses to keep up with the height of Drew Timme and Chet Holmgren; Gonzaga led UCLA by a margin of 32 to 18 on defensive rebounds. While most other teams don't have the size of Gonzaga, it's also fair to say that the nation's 88th ranked rebounding team (37.5 per game) can use all the help it can get in the paint. The quicker Riley gels with his teammates over the next two months, the better UCLA will be in tournament play.
Building a Resume
Part of what elevated UCLA's status last year, having started out as a First Four team, was the overall strength of their conference. Four teams from the "Conference of Champions" reached the Sweet Sixteen, taking out pretenders from other conferences along the way.
This year, the conference quality remains strong, with four projected entrants into this year's edition of March Madness. Unlike last season, the Pac-12 is fairly top-heavy; #3 UCLA, #7 Arizona and #15 USC all have the talent to go on a deep run through the bracket.
Partially due to a slew of Covid-related game cancellations throughout December, UCLA has played a mixed bag of opponents. Marquee matchups against Villanova (win) and Gonzaga (loss) early in the season showed the good and the bad of the Bruins roster. A scrappy nine-point win at #22 Marquette in December has helped boost UCLA's resume, while a defeat to unranked Oregon on January 13th raised concerns about the team's shooting.
It is hard to get a grip on where UCLA stands amongst college basketball's contenders. Some might say they are slightly overrated, which is fair; the team's biggest test against the Zags wasn't even competitive fifteen minutes into the game. However, a stellar 75-59 win against Arizona hints at how special this group can be. The Wildcats were absolutely stifled during their trip to Pauley Pavilion, shooting a paltry 30.7
It's hard to know what UCLA will show up in March. We could get something akin to the talented, but disappointing, groups of old. Set up by the high expectations of 2021's miraculous Final Four run, the added attention and pressure could cause the team to sputter in big moments.
Still, it's hard not to like the long-term outlook of Cronin's crew once fully operational. It seems as if nearly every player on the roster understands their role on both offense and defense, filling in to help out wherever they are needed. In many ways, UCLA fits the mold of previous winners, with multiple offensive playmakers, versatile defenders, and veteran experience. Now, with the entire sport watching, is the time to see if they can finally bring back basketball supremacy to SoCal.