New-look Aztecs host No. 22 UCLA in opener

NCAA Basketball
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The 22nd-ranked Bruins will rely on their wealth of experience when UCLA opens the season Wednesday against host San Diego State at Viejas Arena in San Diego.

The Bruins, who finished 19-12 last season, return five starters and added a key transfer in 6-foot-6 shooting guard Johnny Juzang, who saw limited playing time at Kentucky last season.

UCLA is led by senior shooting guard Chris Smith, who was named the Pac-12 Conference’s Most Improved Player of the Year last season after averaging a team-high 13.1 points and 5.4 rebounds. Smith averaged 6.3 points and 3.7 rebounds as a sophomore.

“Somebody I expect to have a monster season,” UCLA coach Mick Cronin said. “It’s imperative for us that Chris competes for Pac-12 Player of the Year and All-American status, and he’s consistent every night.”

Smith declared for the NBA Draft last spring, but withdrew his name in August.

“We’re very fortunate that he’s back with us for his senior year,” Cronin said. “Two reasons. One, he’s a great guy and I enjoy being around him, but we’re a better team with him on it. I don’t care what freshmen you bring in, how talented they are, it’s different having an elite senior on your team. It gives you a real chance.”

San Diego State was 30-2 last year and expected to earn a high seed in the NCAA Tournament before the season was cut short by the coronavirus outbreak.

The Aztecs are rebuilding this season, however.

Malachi Flynn, the Mountain West Conference Player of the Year, departed for the NBA and was drafted in the first round by the Toronto Raptors.

Yanni Wetzell transferred to Vanderbilt and fellow senior K.J. Feagin is reportedly pursuing a professional career in Germany.

San Diego State will look to senior shooting guard Matt Mitchell, a first-team All-Mountain West Conference selection last season after averaging 12.2 points, on offense and to also contain Smith. Mitchell also declared for the NBA Draft, but returned for his senior season.

“We are very happy to have Matt returning for his senior season.” San Diego State coach Brian Dutcher said. “To be able to fulfill his dream of playing at the next level, it was important to meet with NBA teams and hear their evaluations so he can continue his development. As we focus on earning another Mountain West championship in 2020-21, this experience can only be a positive for Matt and the Aztecs.”

The Bruins have another 6-6 shooting guard in sophomore Jaime Jaquez Jr., whose physical style of play should come in handy against Mitchell.

“Jaime’s secret weapon is his toughness, where he just keeps coming at you,” Cronin said. “He’s like a guy that’s a 15-round boxer that just gets better as the rounds go on, where others tend to fall apart.

“That was the toughness level that he gave us last year, and he really helped bring his teammates up to his level of competitive toughness to where we could become a pretty good team.”

Jalen Hill also gives the Bruins good size up front. The 6-foot-10 junior averaged 9.0 points and 6.9 rebounds last season.

He’ll likely be matched against San Diego State’s Nathan Mensah, who missed most of last season with a pulmonary embolism, but is considered one of the best defensive frontcourt players in the Mountain West.

–Field Level Media

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