UCLA could run it back for another NCAA title push if everyone returns

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Ben Bolch
·4 min read
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INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA - APRIL 03: Johnny Juzang #3 of the UCLA Bruins reacts in the second half against the Gonzaga Bulldogs.
UCLA's Johnny Juzang, the breakout star of the Bruins' Final Four run, gestures during Saturday's loss to Gonzaga. Will he be back with the Bruins for the 2021-22 season? (Tim Nwachukwu / Getty Images)

Blink, and you might have missed the most bonkers ending to a UCLA basketball season.

If it’s any consolation, these same Bruins could be a sight to behold for six more months starting in the fall.

No one has to go from the roster that sparked so much joy over this NCAA tournament before eyes were dabbed over a 40-footer that Gonzaga banked in at the overtime buzzer.

Senior guard Chris Smith, who missed the season’s final three months because of a knee injury, could come back as a super senior who doesn’t count against the team’s scholarship limit.

Sophomore guard Johnny Juzang, the breakout star of this unexpected run to the Final Four, could put off NBA riches for one more shot at college glory.

A team that inspired a city, if not a nation, by playing together on college basketball’s biggest stage could stay together for a deliriously fun 2021-22 season.

Anticipation is already building, a UCLA athletics official tweeting Sunday that more than 60 basketball season ticket deposits had been placed on the day after the team nearly toppled the top-seeded and unbeaten Bulldogs.

It was exactly the kind of response Bruins coach Mick Cronin had solicited after completing the school’s deepest run since 2008.

“My message to our fans is, get your season tickets,” Cronin said late Saturday night after a 93-90 setback that felt like five steps forward. “Let's get this pandemic over with and pack Pauley Pavilion and make UCLA a yearly elite program. That's what I came to UCLA for.”

Gonzaga coach Mark Few had already become the team’s newest fan, passing along his congratulations to Cronin immediately after Jalen Suggs’ heave inside Lucas Oil Stadium broke the Bruins’ hearts in a way that Few’s had been crushed in other tournament games.

Few said Sunday that he had approached Cronin before celebrating with his players to say "awesome job and just congratulate him on just what a heck of a coach he is and how well he had his guys prepared. Nobody really lost, the other team just won. We just happened to have the ball last."

UCLA could have first dibs on not just a Pac-12 title but a top-10 national ranking among conference teams if everybody comes back. Forward Jalen Hill remains a bold question mark after departing in February for personal reasons, making a possible return all the more galvanizing.

If Hill came back and nobody departed, the team would use its full allotment of 13 scholarships counting incoming freshmen Peyton Watson and Will McClendon. If Hill did not return, the team would likely prioritize a transfer post player. Among the possibilities would be Rutgers' Myles Johnson, a 6-foot-11 Long Beach Poly High graduate who is an elite shot-blocker and rebounder currently in the transfer portal.

Watson and McClendon will immediately upgrade a backcourt that’s already a strength, adding high-level shooting and playmaking. Point guard Tyger Campbell will orchestrate an offense that should have plenty of enticing options, particularly if Smith and Juzang stick around to convert his passes into points.

Juzang’s epic run of shot-making in the NCAA tournament transformed him into an intriguing NBA prospect, but another college season would allow him to further refine his defense. Smith’s knee injury in only his eighth game of the season prevented him from fully showcasing himself before NBA executives who will want to see that he’s fully recovered before using a coveted draft pick on him. Coming back next season would remove all doubt.

Forward Cody Riley’s professional prospects are on the upswing after he added some springy defense to go with his spin moves around the basket and 15-foot jumpers. If he can continue to capitalize on the coaching staff’s world-class player development, he could enhance his stock.

Gritty guard Jaime Jaquez Jr. is expected back to scrape more skin off his knees and Jules Bernard could make his heat check of a first half against Alabama, when he made four consecutive three-pointers, a routine occurrence.

As his team went from unheralded underdog to universally respected, if not feared, Cronin savored every practice, every bus ride, every locker-room chat with players who made each day here their masterpiece.

“Oh, God, yeah,” Cronin said when asked about the Bruins’ extraordinary qualities on the eve of the Gonzaga game. “First of all, it’s my first Final Four. But these guys have become a special group of guys. You came to UCLA to try to come into the NCAA tournament as a No. 1 seed, so this will always be special.”

Cronin will certainly have more talented UCLA teams, but none might be able to match this one’s magic. Unless, of course, everybody returns to conjure the same spell.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.