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UCLA Men's Basketball Adjusting to New World Order Entering 2022

The Bruins are allocating recruiting resources overseas while adding five-stars and building around seniors with the Big Ten move two years out.
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The Bruins are set to return to practice Thursday, and a lot has changed since they last walked off the court as a team.

Johnny Juzang, Jules Bernard and Peyton Watson all decided to go to the NBA Draft. Cody Riley went pro overseas. Myles Johnson stepped away from the game. Jake Kyman transferred to Wyoming. Jaime Jaquez Jr. had ankle surgery.

UCLA men's basketball lost assistant coach Michael Lewis and replaced him with Serbia native Ivo Simovic. The legalization of student-athletes profiting off of their name, image and likeness rights hit its one year anniversary and is continuing to grow exponentially. The school's athletic department as a whole went from a position of relative stability to a far more turbulent one, with the Bruins set to move from the Pac-12 to the Big Ten in 2024. 

Coach Mick Cronin has spent the past few months identifying each of the oncoming challenges, and decided to make the most of the shifting landscape.

"I'm accepting the changes and trying to figure out the best ways to continue to make UCLA an elite program," Cronin said.

Since Lewis agreed to take the Ball State head coaching job before UCLA was even knocked out of the Sweet 16 by North Carolina, replacing him was one of the first items on Cronin's to-do list.

Cronin made an out-of-the-box hire by bringing in Simovic in June, considering his experience in the college game was limited to brief assistant stints at smaller East Coast schools like Loyola Maryland, UNC Charlotte and Hartford. More importantly, though, Simovic came from Serbia, with coaching, scouting and recruiting experience in both his home country and Spain.

With Simovic in house, Cronin has already been able to carve out an international recruiting pipeline of sorts. Italian swingman Abramo Canka was added to this year's roster just two months after Simovic's hiring, and five-star freshman big man Adem Bona spent the summer playing for Team Turkey in the FIBA U20 Championships.

"It's something I've always thought would be great if I could do it," Cronin said. "It's hard – I tried to dabble in it at Cincinnati, and I learned that dabbling doesn't work, that you've gotta have someone on your staff with the connections and that's their primary focus."

Cronin was complimentary of Canka's game, based on what he had seen over the summer, specifically highlighting how his handles, passing and length can help replace Juzang and Bernard's roles on the wing.

Five-star combo guard Amari Bailey and four-star point guard Dylan Andrews make up the rest of the incoming freshman class alongside Canka and Bona. The backcourt depth, Cronin said, would help take the load off of fifth-year senior Tyger Campbell, who has yet to have a true backup at the point since taking over in 2019.

Many had assumed Andrews would take on most of those secondary ball-handling responsibilities, but Cronin is confident Bailey – a top-10 recruit in the class of 2022 – has what it takes to be a high-level point guard at the college level.

"I do my own evaluating, I take a lot of pride in the success I've had with that," Cronin said. "Amari Bailey's a great passer, great ball-handler – as is Dylan Andrews. I think both of those guys are gonna really, really help Tyger."

The new faces will surround a veteran roster that – despite losing Juzang, Bernard, Watson, Riley, Johnson and Kyman – still boasts plenty of returning talent.

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Jaquez has fully recovered from his ankle injuries and is back to his normal self. David Singleton is heading into his fifth season in the rotation. Jaylen Clark, who Cronin said would have already broken out last year if it weren't for a preseason concussion and extended midseason COVID hiatus, could finally do so this year.

Big man Mac Etienne and guard Will McClendon both missed last year with torn ACLs, and Cronin said he hopes to have them participating in full contact drills when practices get going on Thursday. Even center Kenneth Nwuba, who only played a total of 235 minutes across Cronin's three seasons in Westwood, has apparently put in enough work in the offseason to really challenge for minutes down low.

"He's a guy that had a long way to go, and when you've got a long way to go, you've gotta work harder than everybody else," Cronin said. "That was his focus all spring."

But perhaps the most momentous change, more so than any injury recovery or incoming freshman, is the Bruins' impending move to the Big Ten, even if it is still two years away.

Cronin has been through something like this before, although the circumstances were far different. Cincinnati was in its second year in the Big East when Cronin took over that program in 2006.

Six years later, after Cronin's Bearcats had improved their record year-over-year every season and made it to the conference title game and Sweet 16, the conference split up. Cincinnati went to the American Athletic Conference, which Cronin said was difficult to sell recruits on and still hampers the Bearcats to this day.

Cronin recognized it would be a different kind of transition for UCLA to enter a high-level conference rather than an inferior one, emphasizing the adjustments his team would have make to new officiating, increased travel and unfamiliar environments.

"Just from different teams leaving different conferences, I think the key is you gotta still maintain your identity, so that'll be my focus," Cronin said. "You can't lose your identity and your footprint and what's made you successful, even though you're changing leagues."

According to Cronin, his job never has been and never will be easy, but he's used to that by now.

"I've never really had a time in my life where I wasn't working hard," Cronin said. "You work for Bob Huggins and Rick Pitino around the clock, building programs around the clock, building Cincinnati around the clock and then the Big East breaks up and it becomes twice as hard, you come here and COVID happens, now it's NIL. What I've learned is – now that I'm a California guy, my line to people is 'You just gotta ride the wave.'"

Cronin said he wishes he could live by that mantra literally and do his best Patrick Swayze in "Point Break" impression, but that he hasn't been able to surf since undergoing right knee surgery over 30 years ago.

Instead, he'll have to stick to coaching hoops for the time being, leading the Bruins through an ever-changing future.

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