NCAAB
April 1, 2021

Final Four Preview: UCLA Bruins

The UCLA Bruins are one of the most prestigious programs in college basketball history, and in 2021, they’ve completed one of the most unlikely Final Four runs.

The Bruins have become the second team to go from the First Four to the Final Four. Of course, as a No. 11 seed alongside two No. 1 seeds and a No. 2 seed, UCLA is the outsider in this year’s Final Four.

But with all things equal, are the Bruins a good bet to make the NCAA Championship Game? 

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How’d They Get Here

Needless to say, it’s been a wild journey for the Bruins in Mick Cronin’s second season in Westwood.

The Bruins went 5-2 before the start of the Pac-12 season. However, they lost to San Diego State and Ohio State, the only two teams they played during that span that went to the NCAA Tournament. They also lost forward Chris Smith to a season-ending injury in late December, which changed the shape of the team.

Nevertheless, UCLA won seven in a row in conference play, only to endure some ups and downs down the stretch. Despite a four-game winning streak in February, the Bruins lost four straight games heading into the NCAA Tournament, which is why they barely snuck in as one of the last at-large teams.

Of course, we know that the Bruins have turned things on for the last five games. Well, four and a half games might be more accurate. UCLA trailed Michigan State by 11 points at halftime in the First Four and looked dead in the water. But the Bruins responded with a strong second half and beat the Spartans in overtime. If they didn’t pull out a comeback win over Michigan State, it’d be some other team in the Final Four.

After surviving the Michigan State game, the Bruins started to hit their stride. They beat BYU and Abilene Christian by comfortable margins to reach the Sweet 16. However, Alabama provided a stiff challenge for Cronin’s team. However, after giving up a last-second shot to send the game to overtime, the Bruins dominated the extra session, knocking off the Tide 88-78.

UCLA then survived a defensive slugfest with Michigan in the Elite Eight, overcoming an early deficit and then withstanding a late rally from the Wolverines to secure an unlikely ticket to the Final Four.

Key Player

There’s no question that Johnny Juzang has been the biggest key to UCLA’s success during the NCAA Tournament.

The Kentucky transfer did a great job of filling in for Smith as the team’s leading scorer and has played his best basketball since late January. And during the tournament, Juzang has kicked things into high gear, scoring at least 23 points in three of UCLA’s five games.

He’s averaging 21.6 points per game in those five games and was an unstoppable shot-making force against Michigan, scoring 28 of UCLA’s 51 points, putting the Bruins on his back when they needed him the most.

Complementary Pieces 

For much of the NCAA Tournament, Jaime Jaquez has been Juzang’s primary running mate. Before scoring just four points against Michigan, he was averaging 16.8 points per game during the tournament, which is up from 12.1 points during the season. Despite the poor showing in the Elite Eight, Jaquez remains UCLA’s best perimeter threat outside of Juzang.

The other key figure for the Bruins is point guard Tyger Campbell. While he’s not a strong outside shooter or a pure scorer, Campbell does all of UCLA’s ball-handling and is essential when it comes to running the offense, dishing out 5.3 assists per game.

Jules Bernard is also a key scorer for the Bruins, averaging 10.5 points per game on the season, including a 17-point effort against Alabama.

Finally, Cody Riley is an essential part of the UCLA rotation, as he’s one of the few players who provides size in the post.

Biggest Weakness

UCLA’s lack of size in the frontcourt continues to be the team’s biggest weakness.

Not only did they lose Smith to injury early in the season but 6-foot-10 forward Jalen Hill left the program mid-season, leaving the Bruins with little size outside of Riley.

The saving grace for the Bruins has been bigger guards like Juzang, Jaquez, and Bernard who can help out on the boards. But when it comes to defending the paint or trying to play offensively from the inside-out, the Bruins have limited options outside of Riley.

Kenneth Nwuba was forced to play 20 minutes against Michigan with Riley in foul trouble and held his own. But UCLA doesn’t have much depth at that spot and will struggle to survive with Riley gets into foul trouble again.

X-Factor

While Juzang is the star and Jaquez is the all-important sidekick, there should be no question that Campbell is the X-factor who must perform for UCLA to have any chance in the Final Four.

The 5-foot-11 sophomore is the embodiment of toughness, not to mention a brilliant ball-handler and distributor. Campbell has committed just six turnovers in five games during the NCAA Tournament and the fact that the Bruins have taken care of the ball has been a huge factor in their run. 

However, Campbell will be going up against some of the best guards in the country in the Final Four, starting with Gonzaga’s Jalen Suggs. He’s going to be pushed to his limits in terms of ball pressure and defensive intensity, making it harder for Campbell to create his own offense and set up others.

UCLA doesn’t have another ball-handler who’s anywhere close to Campbell’s level. If he doesn’t perform at a high level and hold his own, the Bruins don’t stand a chance.

Worth Betting On?

If you’re interested in a big payout, betting on the Bruins is the right choice. UCLA’s moneyline to win the national championship is +1600, which are the longest odds but will pay the most. The Bruins have gotten to this point by being tough defensively, limiting their turnovers, and forcing teams to adapt to them. They’ve played better than the sum of their parts and received a star performance from Juzang.

Unfortunately, those things may not be able to take them any further. They escaped against a short-handed Michigan team in the Elite Eight but still need to beat two more elite teams. There’s still every reason to think that the Bruins will be competitive in the Final Four and look like they belong. But it would be shocking to see UCLA pull off two more wins against the three teams remaining.

Unless you’re a big fan of high-risk, high-reward bets, don’t bet on the Bruins winning the national championship.

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