UCLA Bruins men's basketball looks to next season

By Bill Seals Sports Reporter

The 2022-2023 UCLA men's basketball season proved to be the best for a Bruins squad in at least a decade. It was also heartbreaking in the way that it ended. The Bruins went 31-6 on the season, won their first Pac-12 regular season conference title since the 2012-2013 season and ended up in the top five in the national polls. They looked like a strong favorite for a Final Four appearance.

But then injuries struck the team. Starting guard Jaylen Clark injured his Achilles in the final regular season game against the Arizona Wildcats, ending his season, and starting center Adem Bona injured his left shoulder in the Pac-12 post-season tournament against Oregon, diving for a loose ball. Bona played in only one of the final four games of the season, reinjuring his shoulder.

Clark was selected as the Defensive Player of the Year in the Pac-12 conference and was also selected as the Naismith Defensive Player of the Year in the nation. He was second team All-Pac-12, averaging 13 points per game, 6 rebounds per game and 2.6 steals per game. Bona was the Pac-12 Freshman of the Year and made the Pac-12 All-Defense team, along with Clark.

Without Clark and Bona, the Bruins had to go deeper into their bench and were without their two best defensive players. The two players combined averaged 20.7 points per game, 11.3 rebounds per game, 3.7 steals per game, and two blocks per game. The Bruins bench ranked 325th in bench scoring per game in the nation, so there was no help coming from the bench.

The Bruins were able to get by UNC Asheville and Northwestern in the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament, but in the Sweet 16 round they met up with the Gonzaga Bulldogs and the lack of bench depth proved to be too much to overcome. The Bruins led at halftime 46-33 but collapsed in the second half. Gonzaga had 14 offensive rebounds in the second half and 18 second chance points in a 79-76 come-from-behind win over the Bruins.

Forward Jaime Jaquez Jr., point guard Tyger Campbell and guard Amari Bailey scored 62 of the Bruins 76 points, but wore down in the second half. The Bruins got 20 minutes and four points from their bench in the game. The Bulldogs got 50 minutes and 19 points from their bench. Gonzaga took control of the game in the second half and led by nine points with less than 90 seconds, but the Bruins fought back and took a one-point lead on a three-point shot by Bailey with 12 seconds remaining.

But Gonzaga did not quit, either. Gonzaga guard Julian Strawther nailed a 32-foot three pointer with just seven seconds remaining in the game, and that proved to be the difference for the Bulldogs. For the second consecutive season, the Bruins lost in the Sweet 16 game. In both losses, the starters played too many minutes and the Bruins lost a late lead. In both losses, the Bruins wore down and could not control the defensive boards.

UCLA head coach Mick Cronin has done an excellent job in leading the Bruins to three straight Sweet 16 appearances. The Bruins are 80-24 in the past three seasons. Campbell has been a three-time first-team All-Pac-12 selection at point guard. Jaquez, who is also a three-time All-Pac-12 selection, was the Pac-12 Player of the Year this past season and was selected as the Lute Olsen National Player of the Year.

In ten home conference games this season, the Bruins averaged 10,775 fans per game. Under Cronin, Pauley Pavilion has had stars on the floor and in the stands. The Bruins went 17-0 at home this season and have won 25 games in a row at home, the nation's longest active home winning streak.

The only thing missing on the Bruins is a bench. Cronin needs to develop and utilize his bench. They need to add more size to the team. Arizona was bigger than the Bruins at every position. The Bruins will lose Campbell, Bailey and Jaquez to graduation and the NBA. Guard David Singleton has used up his college basketball eligibility.

The Bruins hope to have Clark and Bona back for the 2023-2024 season. Clark has declared for the NBA but has not hired an agent and due to his Achilles injury will not be available to play until around December. It makes sense for him to return to Westwood next season. Bona not yet made a decision on the NBA. Another season in Westwood would help their draft status.

Dylan Andrews will take Campbell's spot at point guard. Cronin has called Andrews the fastest player with the ball that he has ever coached. Backup center Kenny Nwuba will return for another season. The Bruins also have three 4-star recruits on the way into Westwood, a recruiting class that currently ranks at No. 17 in the nation, according to the On3.com basketball team recruiting rankings.

The Bruins did add a transfer from Utah to their roster for next season. Lazar Stefanovic, a 6-foot-7 guard, has decided to transfer to UCLA for the 2023-2024 season. Stefanovic averaged 10.2 points per games this past season, shooting 36% on three-point shots and 86% on free throws. In the 2021-2022 season, he made the All-Pac-12 freshman team. But the biggest offseason addition would be 7-foot-3, 245-pound center Aday Mara from Spain, who is currently considering enrolling at UCLA.

Mara is a talented big man with passing and shooting skills. The addition of Mara would address the size issue on the Bruin roster and elevate their chances at another Pac-12 title and make the Bruins a strong contender for a national title. Mara is already projected to be a first-round pick in the 2024 NBA Draft. Mara recently turned 18 and is not eligible for the NBA until he turns 19.

The schedule does not get any easier next season. The Bruins will travel to Maui, Hawaii in November for the Maui Invitational. The tournament will feature eight teams: UCLA, Gonzaga, Kansas, Marquette, Purdue, Syracuse, Tennessee, and Chaminade. This will be an early season challenge for the 2023-2024 UCLA Bruins men's basketball team.

 

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