March 1, 2021

DCTRS

Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

Nearly a year after it started, pandemic still troublesome for UCLA

Stay positive, test negative.

Nearly three months into the season, UCLA coach Mick Cronin’s mantra for his team amid a once-a-century pandemic remains perfect on the latter front while facing increasing strain on the former.

No Bruin has tested positive for COVID-19, proof of the team’s devotion to safety protocols. But the lack of social interaction on campus and team bonding outside of bus rides has made what’s usually a joyous time of year far less pleasurable.

“There’s just times where it’s like, when is this thing going to end?” sophomore guard Johnny Juzang said Tuesday. “I think everybody’s kind of felt that.”

Players have not convened for one team meal, taking bags of food on road trips back to their rooms to eat alone. They continue to live a mostly virtual campus life in which they take classes and meet with academic tutors via video. They also haven’t been able to head over to Cronin’s Encino home with a pool and spacious backyard that the coach picked in part because it was perfect for social events.

Juzang stays upbeat by practicing and working out — “I’m able to do what I love, that helps,” he said — and seeing nearby family and friends.

Watching the team play on television, Cronin said, fans might think nothing’s amiss. They would be wrong.

“We’ve made it look easy by — knock on wood — not having a positive test since we’ve returned to training in September,” Cronin said, “but it’s not easy and you see Jalen Hill’s dealing with some things, this has not been easy on these guys at all on any of these teams.”

Hill, a redshirt junior forward who is one of the team’s top rebounders and defenders, has missed the last three games because of personal issues. Cronin said Hill remained apart from the team, and there’s no timetable for his return.

“My concern with Jalen is his well-being,” Cronin said. “He knows that, he’s in contact with guys on our team and we’re just trying to make sure that he knows he has our love and support and that’s really where that’s at right now.”

The Bruins’ schedule remains fluid with five games left in the regular season. There’s a chance they could make up at least one of the games with Oregon that were repeatedly postponed because of virus issues involving the Ducks and game officials.

UCLA head coach Mick Cronin, center, talks to his players during the second half against Washington State in Pullman, Wash. on Feb. 11.

(Young Kwak / Associated Press)

Cronin said the topic might arise Tuesday night during a video meeting of Pac-12 head coaches but added that his bigger concern was fulfilling the two priorities he outlined to UCLA chancellor Gene Block in the fall: having a season and getting to play in the NCAA tournament if the Bruins earned a bid.

“I mean, two years in a row [not playing] is just devastating if you earn a bid, right?” Cronin said. “So we lost it last year and we earned a bid and probably the best bid I’d ever earned as a coach coming from the bottom of the ocean to do it, so it was devastating for us.”

The NCAA has rejiggered its tournament format so that every game will be played in the Indianapolis area to avoid excessive travel and interactions that could lead to positive COVID-19 tests that put players and games at risk.

But there’s growing unease nationally about playing in what are largely meaningless conference tournaments among teams already assured of playing in the NCAA tournament. Gonzaga and Brigham Young are reportedly considering opting out of the West Coast Conference tournament to avoid the possibility of infection, injury or a bad loss.

UCLA was among the teams that didn’t play in the Pac-12 tournament last season, its quarterfinal against California wiped out just hours before tipoff when the pandemic halted sports nationwide.

A year later, just getting to play could be considered a victory.

No respect?

One unintended consequence of the pandemic was that Pac-12 teams had to do most of the traveling during the nonconference portion of the season. UCLA headed to the Midwest to play Ohio State; USC played Connecticut on the East Coast; Colorado played at Tennessee; Stanford played North Carolina in the Tar Heels’ home state as part of the Maui Invitational.

Cronin said the result was losses that fueled a national perception that the Pac-12 is relatively weak.

“Our league is way better than people think — I’m not saying we’re winning the national championship,” Cronin said. “But there’s teams in fourth place or second place in our league that are just as good as teams in second and fourth place in other leagues. But we’re not treated the same in the national rankings.

“So if you lose a game — God forbid [No. 17] USC loses — you’ll be out of the top 25 where other leagues, it’s like they lose and it doesn’t matter, everybody still thinks they’re really good because the pandemic really hurt us with scheduling in the preseason.”