After its sudden stoppage right before March Madness early this spring, Division I men’s college basketball is finally getting its chance to return to universities across the nation.
With the announcement by the NCAA that college basketball would return officially on Nov. 25, Southern California looks to be a very competitive area this year. Loyola Marymount University (LMU) will undergo a makeover with a new head coach. Then there is the crosstown rivalry between the University of Southern California (USC) and the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), teams who are always playing to spoil each other’s dreams of making it into the big dance.
One cannot start talking about California college basketball without speaking about UCLA, which is arguably the most historically known basketball program in the country. The Bruins are ranked No. 22 in the Associated Press (AP) preseason poll recently released and was picked to win the Pac-12 Conference in the preseason media poll.
As a Top 25 program, the Bruins have an unwanted target on their backs. They will play San Diego State on the road to kick off their season.
“It makes my job harder because it kind of takes the hunger away a little bit from guys,” UCLA head coach Mick Cronin said during a videoconference with reporters. “Maybe they’re not mature enough to understand that all it does is help your opponents because their coaches early in the season can say, ‘Well, you better be ready to play, they’re picked to win their league.’ ”
This comes as a problem because the last time Bruins were picked to win the Pac-12, they lost their 2011-12 season opener to LMU and finished in a tie for fifth in the conference standings. Last season, UCLA finished 19-12 with a 12-6 record in the Pac-12 and are one of three Pac-12 programs ranked in the preseason top-25 poll. They were one game behind Oregon who finished first in the conference.
Under Cronin, the Bruins were able to end the 2019-20 season with a rally of 11-3 in the last 14 games. If UCLA hopes to make it into the big dance this year they must be able to play up to that standard all season long.
UCLA has not qualified for an NCAA tournament since 2018, but what will help their chances to return to the big dance is that they will have most of their starting lineup return: senior Chris Smith, juniors Jalen Hill and David Singleton, and sophomores Tyger Campbell and Jaime Jaquez Jr.
The newcomers on the team include sophomore transfer from the University of Kentucky, Johnny Juzang and two Southern California locals, freshmen Jaylen Clark and Logan Cremonesi.
“We still pretty much have the same guys from last season,” Smith said. “There won’t be the preseason hiccups like we had last season, just getting to know coach Cronin. Everybody knows what we’ve gotta do and everyone knows what has to happen, so hopefully, as soon as we get the new guys rolling, we’ll have that momentum back.”
If the Bruins are the favorite to win coming out of the Pac-12, their crosstown rivals are hoping to wreck any chance of them succeeding.
For the Trojans, the team finish off last season with a record of 22-9 and finished fourth in the Pac-12. The Trojans have mostly been a 20-win middle-ranked team for the past couple of years. Head coach Andy Enfield was only able to return four scholarship athletes for the 2020-2021 season. USC lost a pair of impact seniors in Jonah Matthews and Nick Rakocevic as well as freshman phenom Onyeka Okongwu to the NBA Draft.
“Our goals are the same as every year,” Enfield said in a press conference in response to the new season. “We’re going to compete for the Pac-12 championship and then make the NCAA tournament to compete for the national championship. We had a very good team last season, so we will try to build on some of the success we had last year, especially on the defensive end of the floor, and try to get off to a good start this year.”
However, to keep up this consistency, USC may now have to look at the promising Mobley brothers, Isaiah and Evan, to create a controlling frontcourt. Although USC is a mid-card team, they may have possibly the best newcomer of the year Evan Mobley. He was a highly touted recruit for USC and was rated five stars.
“Every day it seems like he does something different, whether it’s offensively or defensively, that no one else can do on our team or anybody we played against last year,” Enfield said. “So it’s fun to watch some of those spectacular plays, but he’s a developing player.”
USC and UCLA are the two juggernauts in this field of play, but outside of these two, LMU may also play well coming out of the region.
The Lions men’s basketball team went 11–21 overall last year and 4–12 in the West Coast Conference to finish in eighth place. This subpar record led to the dismissal of six-year head coach Mike Dunlap back in March. Since then the program has hired Marquette associate head coach Stan Johnson to help get the Lions out of their current hole.
“We are excited to play someone other than ourselves, there’s no doubt about that, Johnson said in a letter to the university. “With so much uncertainty that surrounds the season with COVID issues, it puts a microscope on the importance of each game on the schedule. Every game that we are allowed to play must be treated like gold.”
As LMU looks to rebuild, players on the team look to redeem themselves from a dismal last season.
“We want to win a lot of games this year, senior forward Eli Scott said. “Last year didn’t go how we wanted and we have a full team coming back. I feel like we can do some great things this year.”
LMU hasn’t had back-to-back winning seasons since the 1990-91 and 1991-92 seasons, and qualified to the NCAA tournament since 1990 where they made it to the Elite Eight. It will, however, be a tough road for them as they will have to face off against Gonzaga, Saint Mary’s, and BYU in conference play.
Local players and coaches alike seem to echo Johnson’s remarks about the opportunity to play again on the hardwood as the college basketball landscape was paused right before March Madness. With safety protocols put in place in order for them to compete, the men’s basketball programs at USC, UCLA and LMU, are all looking forward to shooting hoops again.
Teams can schedule 24 regular-season games and participate in one multiple-team event that includes up to three games; 25 regular-season games and participate in one multiple-team event that includes up to two games, or 25 regular-season games if a team does not participate in a multiple-team event.