All around Mick Cronin, it felt like the college basketball season was cratering before anybody played a game.
Tennessee stopped practicing because of multiple positive tests for coronavirus. Duke and Arizona were among scores of teams whose season openers had been canceled. Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak would reveal later in the day that he and several players on his team had tested positive.
At the time, in the relative calm of UCLA’s practice facility, Cronin was proceeding with plans for his team to take a two-hour bus ride to face San Diego State in its season opener Wednesday night. Every Bruin had tested negative that day, giving their coach reason to repeat what had become the team’s unofficial mantra for the 2020-21 season: Stay positive, test negative.
It involved more than a mindset.
Senior guard Chris Smith, bidding to go from the Pac-12’s most improved player to its most valuable one in his final college season, must rise each morning by 7 a.m., scarf down breakfast and head to the practice facility so that he can complete his daily test before stretching for workouts.
“Just trying to be as safe as possible,” Smith said, “so we can keep playing.”
There could be a massive payoff for the players’ diligence. UCLA holds more potential than it has in years, possibly since the Bruins were coming off the last of their three consecutive Final Fours in 2008 under coach Ben Howland.
All five starters are back from the team that looked like a threat to make it to at least the second weekend of the NCAA tournament before the virus shut down basketball in mid-March. The team won 11 of its last 14 games, but has had eight long months to ponder defeat after USC’s Jonah Mathews sunk the Bruins with his buzzer-beater in what became the season finale.
Cronin refers to the game on occasion in an attempt to guard against overconfidence and keep his players grounded after they were ranked No. 22 nationally and picked to win the Pac-12.
“I have to remind them that we're not far removed from being a bad basketball team,” Cronin said, alluding to the Bruins having a losing record as recently as mid-January. “We can get back there real quick.”
If all goes well, the only reminder of what happened early last season will be the names on the backs of the jerseys. The team is well-stocked at every position besides point guard after top recruit Daishen Nix spurned UCLA for the new G League academy. That will leave the ball in the steady hands of sophomore point guard Tyger Campbell, whose workload could be reduced by junior guard David Singleton’s having fully recovered from the foot injury that slowed his return last season.
The Bruins could play at a quickened pace, though Cronin cautioned that would be contingent upon getting defensive stops that would allow the team to get out in transition. There should be plenty of stoppers. Junior forwards Jalen Hill and Cody Riley present a formidable interior duo, and Kentucky transfer Johnny Juzang should complement junior guard Jules Bernard as a lockdown wing defender.
The arc of UCLA’s season could hinge on what happens behind the three-point line. The Bruins made only 32.3% of their three-point attempts last season, tying Arizona State for second-worst in the Pac-12. Defensively, the Bruins allowed opponents to shoot 37.5%, ranking last.
Those numbers should significantly improve this season. Sophomore shooting guard Jake Kyman could have a bigger role after making a team-high 40.3% of his three-pointers and drawing comparisons to Larry Bird after making five shots from long range in the first half of a victory over Arizona State.
In something of a surprise, Kyman might not be the best sharpshooter on the team. Juzang was challenging for that title in practice, and Singleton could give both players a run if he can recapture his freshman form, when he made 46.7% of his shots from behind the arc.
There won’t be any question who gets the ball in the final seconds of a close game. Smith will be the go-to scorer in his bid to make history as the first Bruin to convert 50% of his field goals, 40% of his three-pointers and 90% of his free throws.
Ultimately, any Cronin team will probably go as far as its defense takes it. UCLA’s late-season surge was sparked by limiting opponents to an average of 64.7 points over the final 14 games, and the Bruins went 18-1 when holding a team to 73 points or fewer.
“The way we played at the end of the year last year,” Bernard said, “it was because we were extremely mentally tough.”
There is no reason to believe the Bruins won’t be able to sustain their stinginess given that only Juzang and freshman Jaylen Clark must learn to play defense the way Cronin likes. Clark may not need much guidance based on his habit of stealing entry passes in practice.
The way things are shaping up, UCLA’s most fearsome foe could be the virus. On the eve of the Bruins’ most anticipated season in more than a decade, Cronin said he was grateful for the opportunity to play, even if it came amid a shortened nonconference schedule and the team’s latest start to a season since playing Vermont on Nov. 29, 2003.
“The kids getting the chance to chase their dreams is probably the thing that I'm most happy about,” Cronin said. “Wins are going to be great, but in this day and age, I think one thing we've all learned is it could be worse — you could not be here.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.