Is UCLA MBB on the Rise?
By: Faraz Murshed and Vishal Narayan
The UCLA Men’s Basketball (MBB) team has experienced some turbulence over the last few years, following the departure of Lonzo Ball to the NBA at the culmination of the 2016-17 season. That year, the team exited the NCAA tournament in the Sweet Sixteen and had finished at the 8th spot of the final AP Poll. Since then, UCLA had failed to end a season in the AP Top-25 and had only managed one qualification for March Madness, which was a First Four loss.
This period of poor performances resulted in the termination of two head coaches: Murry Bartow and Steve Alford. However, in the past two seasons the team seems to have turned things around. Enter: Mick Cronin.
The former head coach of the University of Cincinnati Bearcats, Cronin had a slow start with his career at UCLA, leading the team to only 8 wins in its first17 games. Yet, he was able to get things moving as the season went on, finishing the season with a record of 19-12 and winning the Pac-12 Coach of the Year Award.
It certainly seems that Cronin’s award was well deserved. In the current 2020-21 season, the Bruins, finishing 4th in the Pac-12, emerged with a whopping 5 straight NCAA tournament victories to reach the Final Four for the first time since 2008, when the team was led by NBA All-Stars Kevin Love and Russell Westbrook.
Since Mick Cronin’s entrance, there is no doubt that the team has improved significantly.
However, it would be foolish to praise him without recognizing the contribution that the players themselves have made. Tyger Campbell, the sophomore point guard, has stepped up immensely as a team leader, commanding the court whenever he steps on the floor. Jaime Jaquez and Jules Bernard have become much more versatile scoring guards, with Bernard putting up almost twice as many points per game more than he did last year. And of course, Johnny Juzang, the sophomore recruit from Kentucky, has proved himself to be a vital piece to the Bruins’ success as the scoring leader of the team.
In this article, we will seek to pinpoint the specific factors behind the Bruins’ improvement to resolve their latest March Madness run. We will consider Mick Cronin’s coaching philosophy, individual player development, and collective team performance on a per-game basis.
To give a quick look at the contrasting tone of this season with previous ones, we inspect the records of the UCLA MBB team over the past five seasons, which are presented in the table below.
There is a rough parabolic trend when analyzing the win-loss percentage over the last five years, which would seem to bode well for the team. The graph below refers to each season by the year of its end (i.e. 2016-17 is labeled 2017), and this format is maintained for the rest of the visuals as well.
After Mick Cronin took charge in the 2019-20 season, we can see there has been significant growth per year. To further understand the variables behind the rise, we will analyze metrics over 4 seasons, from 2017 to 2021. With the relatively rapid entrance and departure of college basketball players, focusing on this timespan can form a more accurate take on the impact of Mick Cronin and the individual improvements of his players.
Mick Cronin: Defensive Mastermind?
Mick Cronin is a coach with quite the impressive resume. Before his career at UCLA, he was the head coach of the Cincinnati Bearcats for 13 years. His team made the NCAA tournament every year in the last 9. At the time of his move to LA, at age 47, Cronin was the head coach under 50 years of age with the most NCAA Division I wins (365).
Cronin’s coaching style emphasizes a common basketball tenet: “offense wins games, defense wins championships”. This is clearly seen over the course of the past 3 years.
As shown in the graph above, in the past two years, the Bruins have significantly improved in this defensive statistic. In comparison to prior years, they have conceded almost 10 points less per game to their opponents. During the 2019-20 season, which was Cronin’s first season as the UCLA head coach, the Bruins had a record of 18-1 when they held their opponent to less than 70 points. This year, including 3 such performances in the NCAA Tournament, they have gone 15-3.
Notably, in his last 3 seasons at his previous coaching job at Cincinnati, Cronin was 79-10 under the same metric. There is a clear pattern here. When Cronin’s teams demonstrate their defensive prowess, they tend to win. Furthermore, they perform in this manner more often than not.
In the highly volatile world of college basketball, having a coach who can instill a winning gamepan is pivotal for achieving success. With Mick Cronin at the helm, UCLA may have found a path back towards their winning ways.
Comparing the Past with the Present
One of the first metrics looked at when evaluating a team’s success is its efficiency: how well is the team putting up positive stats such as points, rebounds, and assists, while limiting negative stats such as turnovers and fouls?
We observe the Bruins’ efficiency in comparison with their opponents in the past 4 years. EFF is a statistic used by the NBA to determine individual player efficiency. The value is calculated as follows:
EFF = (PTS + REB + AST + STL + BLK - missed FG - missed FT - TO) / GP
We first consider the efficiency statistic above, calculated for the entire team at once.
In their 2017-18 season, the Bruins scored an average of 81.2 points per game, which is aligned with the high efficiency witnessed in the above graph. Comparing this to past two seasons (with Mick Cronin as head coach), UCLA scored 69.5 and 72.9 points per game respectively. Thus, it appears that the Bruins’ offense has unfortunately not improved much since their 2017-18 season.
However, while a team’s offensive output can be measured by their efficiency, their defensive output can be implicitly measured by their opponents’ efficiency.
In the 2017-18 season, the Bruins allowed their opponents to score an average of 76 points per game on defense. However, comparing this to Cronin’s seasons, the Bruins have allowed 67.1 and 67.6 points per game on average. In accordance with this metric, this regular season the Bruins’ record was 14-2 when they held their opponents to less than 70 points, with those two losses falling to hometown rival USC.
Thus, as illustrated by the graph, although the team efficiency rating took a dip in the past year, so did the efficiency rating of the opponents that the Bruins have matched up with.
This clearly shows that Cronin’s defensive lockdown strategy is working. While the Bruins have not performed at the same offensive caliber that they did three years ago, their opponents have clearly had a difficult time putting up scoring numbers too.
We once again consider the efficiency, this time for each individual player rather than the entire team.
In the above boxplot, we consider the first and third quartiles for the 2020-21 season. The first quartile is higher than two of the three past seasons, while the third quartile is the highest of all seasons. While the current most efficient player, Jaime Jaquez Jr., is heavily outperformed by the most efficient player (Aaron Holiday) from 2017-18, it is nevertheless easy to conclude that the second and third most efficient players of this year outrank those of the previous years.
A more specific efficiency statistic we may benefit from considering is the assist-to-turnover ratio of the Bruins and their opponents.
As seen in the graphic above, in the 2017-18 and 2018-19 seasons, the Bruins’ AST-to-TO ratio was seriously lacking in comparison to their adversaries. In the past two years though, UCLA has started to outperform their opponents in this metric. On the offensive end, the Bruins are taking better care of the ball, moving it around a lot more than in their earlier days, when the offense was dominated by one or two star players.
The AST-to-TO ratio is thus a more accurate measure of UCLA’s improvement than the generic efficiency stat. While the Bruins’ generic efficiency continued to descend in Mick Cronin’s first season, the parabolic trend in the AST-to-TO ratio demonstrates that the Bruins have learned to play the team game a little better. They are able to effectively utilize each team member on the court while at the same time limiting their turnovers.
In line with the idea that UCLA has now shifted to a more team-oriented playing style, we now take a look at the scoring distribution among each player, to determine how individual players are contributing to the success of the collective.
The graph below shows the PPG of each of the players on the team in descending order, for the four seasons.
An interesting realization is that in the 2020-21 season, the 75th percentile was able to maintain a double-digit PPG, which represents a stark improvement from the previous year and the maximum such value for that percentile over the seasons. It is apparent through the boxplot that after Mick Cronin took charge, there is more of an even scoring output. Take a look at the IQR of the 2021 season - both the 25th percentile and 75th percentile are the highest of the other seasons. This is clear evidence that the entire team is collectively contributing at a higher level than previous seasons. Thus, there is no doubt that Cronin’s current team has more scoring depth than before. The 2020-21 team has a crop of players that perform at a similar level when it comes to scoring.
Finally, we examine an essential metric of a team’s success: rebounding.
As we can see in the graph above, UCLA has consistently out-rebounded its opponents in the past 4 years. While the number of rebounds the Bruins have amassed per game is still less than before, it is important to note that this season, the team has an average height of 6’5. This is low compared to the previous years, where the average heights were 6’7 and 6’6 respectively. Therefore, despite being at a size disadvantage in comparison to before, it is impressive that the Bruins have still found a way to consistently secure possession of the ball and limit second-chance points.
All of these metrics serve to drive home a similar point: basketball is truly a team game. Unlike previous years, this year’s team isn’t led by a star vastly outperforming the rest and doesn’t have a core of mediocre performers either. Instead, the 2020-21 UCLA MBB team consists of a core of great and solid players, resulting in a deeper and more dangerous team. We will now consider the key players of the current season and look to understand each of their strengths and weaknesses in their contribution to the Bruins’ unexpected recent success.
Over the course of the past season, we have witnessed each player of the UCLA team grow into his role. For the purpose of brevity, we will examine each starter’s role and contributions and note key things to look for from some bench players.
Tyger Campbell has been a much better facilitator of offense this season. With an offensive rating (points scored by team per 100 possessions while player is on the court) of 107.4, he is looking a lot more confident than he was in his freshman year. Here’s a look at some of his numbers:
He is averaging double digits points this season, an improvement from the previous year.
His free throw percentage has increased from 67% to 77%.
He is averaging around 5 assists per game, which is consistent with his previous season.
Unfortunately he has not averaged more than 2.5 rebounds a game as a Bruin.
This may be explained by the fact that he is a small guard listed at 5’11.
As a sophomore, Campbell still has two more years to improve immensely and become a true leader. Despite being at a size disadvantage, he takes the ball to the hoop very aggressively, and excels at finishing through traffic. He has performed very consistently during the current season, and has shown true grit throughout the latest March Madness run.
Following an unmemorable season at Kentucky, Johnny Juzang has emerged as a crucial player to the Bruins’ success this season. Here are some of his details:
He is playing 31 minutes per game as opposed to 12 at Kentucky
He scored a measly 2.9 PPG at Kentucky, but leads UCLA scoring with 15.5 PPG
His free throw percentage has increased significantly from 83.3% to 90.2%
It is clear that Juzang is a much more confident shooter now than he was at Kentucky
He attempts thrice as many 3-pt field goals per game, and 6 times as many 2-pt field goals per game.
It seems that Mick Cronin has realized and begun to harness Juzang’s true potential. He is an excellent off-ball player, and is very good at setting up for catch-and-shoot plays. Furthermore, he is very good at creating scoring opportunities for himself, being an elite mid-range shooter. It is no surprise that former NBA stalwart Kenny Smith has declared Juzang to be a surefire 1st round NBA pick, but we hope for UCLA’s sake that he stays with the Bruins for another year.
Jaime Jaquez Jr.
Sophomore Jaime Jaquez Jr. has been a consistent scoring option for the Bruins this season:
Since his freshman season, his scoring has improved from 8.9 PPG to 12.1 PPG.
Total rebounds per game has increased from 4.8 to 6.1
Three-point percentage increased from 31.3% to 39.3%.
A steady presence in the Bruins lineup during his initial season, Jaquez Jr. experienced his first bout of fame when he sank a game-winning three-pointer against Arizona State. Since then, he has gained more of Cronin’s trust, and at 34.8 minutes per game, claims the title as the Bruin with the most game time. His improved physical frame has helped him with his increased scoring output and rebounding. At a frame of 6’6” and 220 lbs, he frequently bests his defenders by backing them down and posting up to create plays for himself and his teammates. With an effective three-pointer too, Jaquez is among the most versatile and dependable members of the team.
Jules Bernard is a trustworthy guard who steps up when the team needs him. However, he is quite streaky with his scoring.
In three seasons, this is his season playing the most at 29.6 MPG.
He knocks down 3-pt field goals at a rate of 39.4%.
He has demonstrated better court vision this season, and is averaging 1.6 assists per game as opposed to 0.8 and 0.6 his first two seasons.
Although he is averaging double digits this season at 10.5 PPG, he scored 7 or less points in 11 out of 31 games played so far.
Yet, he scored 15+ points in 9 of those games.
While Bernard has demonstrated himself to be a central member in the Bruins’ success, he has not yet established himself as a consistent and dependable scorer like Juzang and Jaquez have. However, it is still clear that he is an excellent facilitator with an offensive rating of 114, which is the 2nd highest rating of all the starting lineup. On his good nights though, Bernard proves to be a terror for any guard defending him.
At 6’9”, 225 lb, Junior Cody Riley has steadily improved over his three seasons and is difficult for opponents to handle in the paint:
Free throw percentage has increased from 54.8% to 67%
Increased total rebounds per game from 4.5 to 5.2
Increased points per game from 8.8 to 9.8
Offensive rating has increased from 99.4 to 104.1
Defensive rating has decreased from 102.1 to 99.9
Overall, his numbers are more consistent in comparison to his sophomore year. Though a statline of 10/5/1 may not sound too menacing, Riley fulfills his crucial role as a tough bruiser near the basket. Moreover, he has become a force to be reckoned with on both ends, as his offensive rating has increased and his defensive rating has decreased, meaning that while he is on the floor, the Bruins score more points while allowing less points to be scored. Coupled with the overall defensive improvements of the team, we can easily conclude that UCLA holistically performs better when Cody Riley is on the court.
Bench / Rest of Team:
The bench players on the team underperform the starting lineup by a fair margin. Cody Riley, the starter with the least points per game at 9.8, still scores more than twice of what the currently highest scoring bench player, David Singleton, scores at 4.8 PPG. It is important to note that two key players, Chris Smith and Jalen Hill, are out for the season due to a torn ACL injury and personal reasons respectively. While we can easily pinpoint the strengths that propel the starting lineup forward, it is a little more hazy when considering the rest of the team.
As the “3-point specialist” of the team, David Singleton has been shooting 3-point field goals at a whopping 47% this season. For reference, the national average for 3-point attempt percentage was 37.7% in 2019. However, Singleton’s 2-pt field goal percentage this season was 37.9%, the 4th worst on the team. While he definitely contributes some key shots every game, his lack of inside play puts him at a disadvantage when it comes to other scorers.
Jake Kyman, a 6’6 sophomore guard, has struggled this season, scoring only 3.1 points per game as opposed to 5.3 in his freshman year. In addition, his offensive rating has dropped severely from 116.9 to 99.5. While it may be surprising to witness this downward trend from a promising guard, it is no secret that Kyman has underperformed this season. It is uncertain whether we will see a shift towards an upward trend in his performance in the following season.
Jaylen Clark is a promising freshman who seems to make effective use of his limited playing time. For playing only 9 minutes a game on average this season, Clark has shot with a field goal percentage of 50%. A well-accomplished coach such as Mick Cronin would definitely do the team good to recognize this effort, and we predict that Clark will see a lot more of the floor in the coming season.
Finally, Mac Etienne, the most recent addition to the Bruins, has shown signs of potential in his fledgling career at UCLA. He joined the Bruins at the start of the Winter 2021 quarter, signing on in the middle of his final high school year. In high school, Etienne excelled at scoring in the paint, most of his points coming from authoritative dunks. However, it quickly became evident that he needed to work more on his post play in his first few collegiate matches. Although he has only averaged 2.6 points and 2.8 rebounds per game, his youth hints that he could grow to become a solid and dependable center for the Bruins in the coming years.
In the current season, UCLA does not seem to have a set of superstars carrying the team to victories. However, the absence of a duo like Kevin Love and Russell Westbrook has clearly not prevented the team from being successful this year, as the Bruins reached the Final Four for the first time since 2008.
Since the highly accomplished Mick Cronin joined the Bruins, the team has shown deadly potential especially on the defensive end. Cronin obviously loves to emphasize a defense-oriented approach to his team’s play style, and as evidenced, it seems to be working very well.
Even with a lack of clear future NBA superstars, the Bruins have found a way to work well as a team on the offensive end, moving the ball around much more effectively to create a wider variety of scoring opportunities. At the same time, individual players have demonstrated mastery in isolation situations. Notably, Johnny Juzang has begun to make a name for himself in the history books of UCLA, becoming one of the top 5 Bruin scorers of all time in the NCAA tournament. It is possible that if he decides to stay with the Bruins another year, we may see a very similar performance next year. This leads us to ask the question that will be on every Bruin fan’s mind after the end of the current season: what can we expect from the UCLA Basketball team in 2021-22?
Having made such an extensive impact in the tournament this year, the Bruins next year will have to work even harder to preserve their uprising reputation. It seems as if they have been on an upward trajectory for the past two years - whether or not it will continue, no one knows. However, one thing is certain. The UCLA Bruins have vastly outperformed their own previous performances and are on track to return to the upper echelons of college basketball.