The Bears are having an up and down year so far under new head coach Wyking Jones, having beaten Stanford to start Pac-12 play (proof that this is, in fact, possible), but getting blown out by the Trojans on Thursday.
Overall, the Bears have probably been worse than imagined this year. Certainly losing big prospects like Jaylen Brown and Ivan Rabb has certainly hurt, as did losing previous coach Cuonzo Martin, who really helped the Bears become a mid-tier Pac-12 team. But even with all of that, Berkeley has had a series of losses that really highlight how weak this roster is, including to UC Riverside (which recently fired their coach), Central Arkansas, and Chaminade (by 24 points!). But they also hold a road victory over San Diego State, so there are occasionally flashes of talent.
Wyking Jones is in his first year as a head coach, after previously working as an assistant to Cuonzo Martin at UC Berkeley, where he is credited with helping the Bears land Jaylen Brown and Ivan Rabb. Prior to that, Jones was also an assistant under Rick Pitino at Louisville from 2011-2015. Jones’s work should be familiar to UCLA head coach Steve Alford, as Jones had also served as an assistant on Alford’s staff at New Mexico from 2009-2011.
For as much as some UCLA fans want to lament that the Bruins are a young team, UC Berkeley really has a young team. The Golden Bears only returned 2 players from last year’s team while losing 8. 4 different freshman (Darius McNeill, Juhwan Harris-Dyson, Deschon Winston, Justice Sueing) have started games this year, with McNeill and Sueing both averaging double figures in points. Don Coleman, the junior 2 guard, has seen a minutes increase from 11.4 last year to 35.9 this year, and has responded in kind, averaging 19.1 PPG on the season.
On the inside, the UC Berkeley defense is anchored by senior Kingsley Okoroh. Okoroh is 3rd all-time in blocked shots over his career, and this year he’s already blocked 38 shots. He’s joined on the inside by senior Marcus Lee, who has 34 blocked shots of his own to go along with 12.5 PPG. In fact, UC Berkeley is one of the best shot-blocking teams in the nation, ranking 17th nationally with 5.9 blocks per game. That’s going to make things difficult for UCLA’s plethora of guards to drive and score in the lane.
Like Stanford, on paper, this should be a relatively easy UCLA victory. Berkeley has even less experience than the Bruins, and their talent level just isn’t close to what the Bruins possess. But, if we learned anything from Thursday’s double-overtime loss, this UCLA team can be maddeningly inconsistent, and UC Berkeley’s strengths (blocking shots, getting to the FT line and making those shots) could prove to be trouble for the Bruins.