Be quick and make opponents worry? UCLA has a new full-court defensive game plan

Be quick and make opponents worry? UCLA has a new full-court defensive game plan

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UCLA coach Mick Cronin is a defensive junkie who now has a lineup that should be able to press on a consistent basis. (John Locher / Associated Press)

Start the presses!

For the first time under coach Mick Cronin, UCLA intends to unleash a full-court fury.

The Bruins will likely feature eight perimeter players next season upon the return of Tyger Campbell and Jaime Jaquez Jr. plus the arrival of Amari Bailey and Dylan Andrews. Those speedy newcomers, combined with the savvy veterans, will allow the team to shuffle lineups and ruffle opponents from one baseline to the other.

In what might qualify as a modern version of Arkansas’ “40 Minutes of Hell,” one working title for the Bruins might be “94 Feet of Repel.”

“We’re going to be able to press, finally, which is something that I’ve wanted to do, we tried to do, but we just couldn’t do it at a consistent level,” Cronin told The Times during a wide-ranging telephone interview. “So we’re just going to be a much faster team.”

That speed will also be reflected in the frontcourt upon the departures of Myles Johnson and Cody Riley, valuable if relatively plodding big men. Johnson is starting his engineering career and Riley is expected to move on after five college seasons that included a trip to the 2021 Final Four, opening the door for some supersonic youth.

True freshman Adem Bona, widely regarded as one of the most athletic post prospects in the country, will challenge redshirt sophomore Mac Etienne for a starting spot. Cronin said Etienne and redshirt freshman shooting guard Will McClendon, who both missed last season with torn knee ligaments, have resumed shooting drills and could be cleared for full participation by July, meaning they’re on track to be available well before the season opener.

Jaquez also figures to be nimbler after recently undergoing a procedure to remove bone spurs and chips from his left ankle, according to his father, Jaime Jaquez Sr.

“The doctors couldn’t believe when they looked in there what they saw and what he was able to do with what he had in there,” the elder Jaquez said, alluding to his son’s late-season offensive dominance. “There were times when he couldn’t even jump. He was just trying to muscle through the whole entire season and did the best he could. We expect him to get back to where he used to be as far as athleticism.”

Cronin, a defensive junkie who said the desire to press has always resided in his DNA, now has the roster to realize his ambitions. He described Bailey, Andrews and McClendon as “94-foot pickup guys” who will not only be able to press full court but alleviate the heavy ballhandling workload that Campbell has shouldered since his arrival.

“My three years here, we’ve had one point guard — Tyger,” Cronin said. “Part of our problem was we didn’t have people creating shots for Tyger and he was our best shooter. I mean, statistically, it’s just fact. Tyger had to do all the creating, so his life’s going to be a lot easier with Dylan Andrews, Amari Bailey and Will McClendon.”

Jules Bernard would represent another wing option if he decides to return for a fifth college season after assessing his NBA draft potential. Cronin said he expected Bernard to be on the team considering “the predominant thought out there amongst people we talk to is that Jules will come back” to enhance his professional prospects.

The Bruins currently have two scholarships open for next season but may not fill them with transfers given all that perimeter depth. Cronin ticked off every wing player by name before chuckling over the thought of a transfer cracking that lineup.

“Do you see any playing time in there?” he asked rhetorically.

That’s not to say the coaching staff is ignoring what has amounted to a free-agent frenzy under less restrictive transfer rules. Cronin said there could be a scenario in which it made sense to add a player willing to accept a cameo role next season in exchange for a much larger effect in 2023-24, when the team could turn over more than half the roster.

David Singleton, Campbell, Jaquez and Bernard — should he return — will all be seniors next season and Bailey will probably be bound for the NBA by next spring, with another player or two also taking that path. Coaches have long begun the search for replacements as part of what could be a massive recruiting class, with Cronin also needing to replenish his staff upon the departure of assistant Michael Lewis for the head coaching job at Ball State.

Interviews are ongoing, with a hire expected to be made by the end of this month. Candidates have heard one caveat about their prospects of joining Cronin and seasoned assistants Darren Savino and Rod Palmer.

“I’ve had to tell all the people that were interested that are my age or older,” Cronin said, “that Darren, Rod and I have come to grips with, we need a younger guy on our staff — not necessarily 25, but we need somebody younger than us. I want somebody that not only can recruit but can coach as well but also fits with our culture. We’re a culture program, so No. 1 for me is you’ve got to care about kids, you’ve got to be about helping young people figure out what life’s all about.”

Whoever gets the job might feel like a winner on dual fronts considering the Bruins are widely projected as a top-five team next season. Jaquez and Campbell could be preseason All-Americans leading the team through a schedule that will include Kentucky and possibly Baylor and Virginia as part of a Las Vegas tournament. There’s also expected to be a road game against a Power Five conference team on the East Coast that Cronin would not name because the contract has not been finalized.

If all goes well, the Bruins’ newfound speed and attacking style will make them ungracious guests. Cronin has been amused by those who praised his UCLA defenses because they’ve never reached the level he wanted, constrained by an inability to pick up full court.

Those limitations have been lifted. The press rolls on once more.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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