UCLA men's basketball looks forward to next season after losing to North Carolina

On paper, the UCLA Bruins were a strong favorite to return to the Final Four 2022 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament. With all five starters returning from the 2020-2021 team that made it to the Final Four, the 2021-2022 squad seemed to be poised to make a run at a national championship. The Bruins entered the season as the No. 2 ranked team in the nation in the Associated Press Poll.

Unfortunately for Bruin fans, the 2021-2022 squad was unable to replicate their NCAA Tournament performance from last season. The Bruins season ended a week ago in Philadelphia in a Sweet 16 game, with the Bruins falling to the North Carolina Tar Heels, 73-66. The loss ended the Bruins season with a record of 27-8.

In the battle between two college basketball blue bloods, the game featured 14 lead changes and 8 ties. The Bruins led 64-61 with 1:51 remaining in the game when Tar Heel guard Caleb Love missed a three-point shot, with the rebound headed out-of-bounds. Center Armando Bacot hustled and saved the ball from going out of bounds, flipping the ball in the air to where Love happened to be standing.

A few seconds later, Love buried another three-point attempt, tying the score at 64-64. That one hustle play changed the course of the game. As Bruin head coach Mick Cronin said after the game, "That changed the game," said Cronin. "We get that rebound, it's a different story but you never know what happens. Then I think Bacot saved it and threw it up and it goes right to Love, and he shoots it in."

The Tar Heels won this game by beating the Bruins on the offensive boards, 15-8. That led to a 19-6 advantage in second chance points for the Tar Heels. That turned out to be the difference, along with 27 second half points from the hot-shooting Love. The Bruins got no scoring in the final 9:57 of the game from guard Johnny Juzang or forward Jaime Jaquez Jr., their two leading scorers on the season.

Both players appeared to be exhausted, as Cronin decided to shorten his bench and play his top four players heavy minutes. Point guard Tyger Campbell and Juzang each played 39 minutes, while Jaquez Jr. and guard Jules Bernard both played 38 minutes. The Tar Heels also did the same, and their players also appeared to wear down offensively, with the exception of the red-hot Love.

The loss was obviously hard on a Bruin team that had hoped to finish what they had started in the 2021 NCAA Tournament. But this Bruin team should be proud of their accomplishments throughout the season. The Sweet 16 appearance was the 36th in UCLA basketball history, second only to the Kentucky Wildcats in NCAA basketball history.

The Bruins victory over the Villanova Wildcats at home early in the season looks even more impressive after Villanova made the Final Four. That game was played before a sellout crowd of 13,659 fans at Pauley Pavilion in Westwood. The Bruins ended the regular season beating their rival USC at home before 13,659 fans. The attendance numbers for these two games, given the constant battles with Covid, are encouraging.

The Bruins ended the regular season as the 11th ranked team in the nation in the AP Poll and 10th in the NCAA Net Rankings. The Bruins are back and Cronin wants people do know that.

"Yeah, they're heart broke", Cronin said. "But like I tell them, we all play at UCLA, we practice under the pyramid of success, and true greatness is giving your best effort. Give your best effort to get your degree, be a good person, be a good teammate. They've restored UCLA to the national scene. My message to them is you can't let people say, well, hey, you did not win it all this year, or your season is not a success. That's a ludicrous statement."

UCLA Bruins basketball will be even better next season, with most of the team returning and three of the top 40 high school players in the nation coming into Westwood. Amari Bailey is a 6-foot-5 guard from Sierra Canyon high school in Chatsworth and is the No. 2 ranked player in the nation. Adem Bona, from Prolific Prep in Napa, California, is a 6-foot-10 center that will bring rebounding and shot blocking to the Bruins. Both are athletic players. The Bruins could use an infusion of athleticism in their lineup.

The tough decisions will be who leaves. With three players coming in, at least three players need to leave. Because of Covid, players were granted an extra season of eligibility. Everyone on the roster is eligible to return. Forward Jake Kyman has put his name into the transfer portal, and he is likely to leave. Center Cody Riley has been at UCLA since the 2017-2018 season and is likely to leave.

Guard David Singleton will graduate and may come back for another season if he gets into graduate school at UCLA. Bernard is on track to graduate with a degree in Economics. Bernard is considered likely to leave after four years in Westwood. With Bailey, five-star freshman Peyton Watson and star defensive guard Jaylen Clark needing minutes, Bernard would be better off turning professional.

The Bruins had three starters make the first team All-Pac-12 team (Campbell, Juzang, and Jaquez Jr.). Clark and center Myles Johnson both made the five man All-Pac-12 defensive team. All five of these players could return next season. If that happens, with high school talent coming in, the Bruins will likely be a preseason top five team, again.

If they can grow and rebound from a tough, emotional ending to the 2021-2022 season, the future would seem to be bright for the Bruins. This group of Bruins has made UCLA Basketball relevant again and has made it fun to watch basketball at Pauley. This has raised expectations for another championship in Westwood. Just the way it should be.


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