A showdown of top-four teams on Friday night will help set the tone for the 2021-22 college basketball season, as No. 2 UCLA welcomes No. 4 Villanova to Pauley Pavilion in Los Angeles.
The Bruins (1-0) cruised in their season opener on Tuesday, winning 95-58 against Cal State Bakersfield. Five UCLA players scored in double figures to usher in a campaign filled with expectations after the Bruins won five NCAA Tournament games to reach the 2021 Final Four.
UCLA’s lofty preseason ranking is a reflection of the talent central to last season’s postseason run returning to the program, with the veteran trio of Johnny Juzang, Jules Bernard and Jaime Jaquez Jr. leading Tuesday’s win with 19, 19 and 14 points, respectively, and carrying that momentum into a new year.
Bruins coach Mick Cronin said opening with Cal State Bakersfield was a strategic decision to ready his team for Friday’s matchup. The Roadrunners ranked a solid No. 158 in KenPom.com adjusted defensive efficiency a season ago.
“We wanted to play Bakersfield because (coach) Rod (Barnes) is known for being a defensive guy,” Cronin said. “I have a lot of experience from my Big East days (as coach at Cincinnati). I know what Villanova is all about. I know what they’re culture stands for and I understand how hard they’ll play and how physical they are. I thought this would give us a little bit of a microcosm of that.”
Tuesday’s lopsided win was not entirely positive for UCLA’s preparation for Friday. Cody Riley left the game with an apparent knee injury. His status for Friday is unknown.
UCLA already lost Mac Etienne from its frontcourt with a knee injury. Kenneth Nwuba and Rutgers transfer Myles Johnson each played 18 minutes. Nwuba finished with four points, two rebounds and two blocked shots, while Johnson had two points and five rebounds.
Villanova (1-0) comes into Los Angeles having welcomed back star point guard Collin Gillespie from an MCL injury that ended his 2020-21 campaign early. Gillespie showed no rust with 13 points, five assists and two steals in the Wildcats’ 91-51 romp over Mount St. Mary’s.
“He’s looked great all preseason,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said. “The hardest thing for him in a game like this, teams know who he is. He’s still got to make the right plays, be a point guard and get everyone else involved. And I thought he did a great job.”
Brandon Slater and Jermaine Samuels both scored 17 points in the rout, and Justin Moore shot 6-of-8 from 3-point range en route to a career-high 27 points.
“Part of sending a message is us coming out hard, playing together,” Moore said of his emphatic start to the season. “Not just me sending a message — all of us.”
Friday’s contest is an opportunity for either team to send an emphatic message about this campaign’s early pecking order. Both UCLA and Villanova have national-championship aspirations and bring similar styles.
Cronin-coached teams have long been known for their defensive intensity, and in the opener, held Cal State Bakersfield to just 37.5 percent shooting from the floor. But the Bruins finished last season No. 11 in the nation in adjusted offensive efficiency, five spots behind Villanova.
–Field Level Media
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