Johnny Juzang emerged as a bona-fide star during last season’s NCAA Tournament, when UCLA made a remarkable run to the Final Four.
The 6-foot-7 guard begins this season as one of the sport’s big names, and the No. 2 Bruins are on the short list of NCAA title contenders.
Juzang and UCLA will start their championship quest on Tuesday night when they open their highly anticipated season at home against Cal State Bakersfield.
The Bruins (22-10 last season) squeaked into the NCAA Tournament as a No. 11 seed in 2020-21 and then won five straight games to reach the Final Four. Even their NCAA loss will be long remembered as an all-time classic as Gonzaga’s Jalen Suggs banked in a 35-footer as time expired for a 93-90 overtime victory over UCLA.
With the entire starting five returning, the program that has 11 national titles will be dealing with high expectations.
“The only challenge will be how I operate, because I challenge our guys that none of that stuff matters,” UCLA coach Mick Cronin told reporters this week. “I train them on (legendary UCLA) Coach (John) Wooden — ignore criticism, deflect praise, focus on your job, because none of it matters.”
Of course, a lot of focus will be on Juzang, who is a first-team preseason All-American.
Juzang averaged 16 points overall last season, but his caliber of play in the NCAA Tournament was several notches higher. He scored 137 points in six NCAA games, second most in program history behind Gail Goodrich (140 in 1965).
But Juzang is deflecting all the chatter about forecasts that he will be a contender for top national player honors.
“I don’t ever put pressure on myself like that,” Juzang told The Athletic. “What drives me at my core isn’t all these big goals. It’s knowing that I’m growing and progressing.”
UCLA’s other returning starters are 6-7 swingman Jaime Jaquez Jr. (12.3 points, team-best 6.1 rebounds), 5-11 point guard Tyger Campbell (10.4 points, team-leading 5.4 assists), 6-7 guard Jules Bernard (10.3 points, 5.1 rebounds) and 6-9 forward Cody Riley (10.0 points, 5.4 rebounds).
Cal State Bakersfield went 15-11 last season during its first campaign in the Big West.
Coach Rod Barnes feels his team can contend for a conference title, so he wanted a marquee foe early in the slate, and he found one with the bus ride to UCLA.
Barnes, entering his 11th season with the Roadrunners, doesn’t have any returning double-digit scorers but is bullish about the overall cast.
“I like our versatility,” Barnes said recently. “I like how the guys have worked. I think we have great leadership, so I’m pretty excited about the team and about the season.”
Swingman Justin Edler-Davis and guard Shaun Williams are among the returnees. Both players averaged 9.3 points last season, and they also combined to make 72 — Edler-Davis with 40, Williams with 32 — of the team’s 146 3-point baskets.
Swingman Justin McCall, who averaged 8.3 points, also is back.
Two transfers expected to contribute immediately are swingman Antavion Collum (Ole Miss) and guard David Walker (South Alabama).
UCLA won both previous meetings with Bakersfield. The Bruins won 75-64 during the 2009-10 season and 75-66 during the 2017-18 campaign. Both games were at Pauley Pavilion.
–Field Level Media