On top of the team-wide hype, the Bruins’ youngest and oldest stars are both garnering plenty of attention as the season nears its tip-off.
ESPN published its 2022-2023 Pac-12 conference preview on Tuesday, and UCLA men’s basketball was one of the main centers of conversation in the piece. The Bruins were the consensus pick to win the conference, while all four experts picked guard/forward Jaime Jaquez Jr. as Pac-12 Player of the Year and guard Amari Bailey as Pac-12 Newcomer of the Year.
Jaquez averaged 13.9 points, 5.7 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 1.1 steals last season. The Camarillo, California, native was able to hit those marks while playing through multiple ankle injuries, but he enters 2022 fully healthy following offseason surgery.
The senior is a preseason All-American and leads the Bruins in essentially every count stat since coach Mick Cronin took over in 2019. Jaquez’s player efficiency rating, win shares, usage rate and box plus/minus have all gone up every year of his career while his turnover rate has gone down, positioning him for yet another step up as his career in Westwood nears its end.
Bailey, on the other hand, is just getting started, arriving as a five-star combo guard out of Sierra Canyon (CA). The consensus top-10 recruit averaged 18.5 points, 5.6 rebounds and 2.6 assists his senior year with the Trailblazers while playing through injuries of his own, but he put up 28.2 points, 8.1 rebounds and 6.2 assists with three triple doubles the prior season.
Jaquez and Bailey will likely join redshirt senior point guard Tyger Campbell, five-star freshman center Adem Bona and wildcard junior Jaylen Clark in Cronin’s starting lineup, with veteran sharpshooter David Singleton, breakout candidate big man Kenny Nwuba, new guards Dylan Andrews and Will McClendon and Italian point forward Abramo Canka – among others – coming off the bench.
That lineup is drawing a healthy amount of praise, with UCLA coming in at No. 8 in the preseason edition of the AP poll. That was higher than any other Pac-12 team, and ESPN agreed by slotting the blue and gold well above their conference counterparts.
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John Gasaway, Myron Medcalf, Jeff Borzello and Joe Lunardi all picked the Bruins to take home the Pac-12 crown for the first time since 2013. The panel was also asked if UCLA would be able to bounce back this season, and what it would take for them to once again reach the heights they did in 2021 or 1995.
Here is what the four experts said in response:
Gasaway: How fickle is this thing called college basketball? The Bruins were up three on North Carolina in the Sweet 16, with a little more than two minutes remaining. So perhaps UCLA was closer than we actually think, in reaching back-to-back Final Fours. In any event, Jaquez, Tyger Campbell and fellow returnee Jaylen Clark will say hello to national top-20 recruits Amari Bailey and Adem Bona. With Campbell handling the ball, the Bruins may crush the rest of the Pac-12 in shot volume once again in 2023.
Medcalf: Mick Cronin will be living good no matter what happens after UCLA’s Final Four (2021) and Sweet Sixteen (2022) runs. But a healthy Jaquez (13.9 PPG, 5.7 RPG, 2.3 APG) — who battled ankle injuries throughout 2021-22 — gives UCLA one of college basketball’s most complete players. UCLA committed turnovers on just 11.5% of its possessions with Campbell on the floor last season, per hooplens.com. Bona and Bailey are projected first-round picks. I think the secret about UCLA this year is that Cronin might have his best Bruins team. If that’s true, well, we all know he’s done more with less.
Borzello: I agree. The Bruins should be able to generate momentum more consistently, even without Johnny Juzang and Jules Bernard. Jaquez is a preseason All-American, Campbell is one of the best point guards in the country, Clark averaged 14.8 points and 6.4 rebounds during a five-game February stretch as a starter. If Bailey and Bona are indeed the game-changers they’re expected to be, UCLA is the clear Pac-12 favorite.
Lunardi: UCLA struggled to meet expectations last year in part because said expectations were unreasonable, based more upon its five 2021 NCAA tournament wins than what had been a mostly mediocre regular season. The truth figured to fall somewhere in the middle, which is exactly what happened last season. It is likely better positioned for a Final Four run in 2023. The two best players are back along with more than enough emerging talent to keep the good times going. With Arizona losing the element of surprise, I like UCLA to regain its Pac-12 crown and make a very deep NCAA run this March.
Arizona was the panel’s consensus No. 2 team, with Oregon pulling in most of the third-place votes and USC coming in as an unanimous No. 4.
UCLA opens its season Nov. 7 at home against Sacramento State. Pac-12 play begins Dec. 1 on the road against Stanford, while the full conference slate will kick in Dec. 30 horses Washington State.
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