UCLA came one win away from the Final Four in 2017-18, a feat never accomplished in the NCAA era of Bruins basketball. Replicating such a significant benchmark is difficult enough on its own; UCLA strives to do so in 2018-19 while also replacing its two star players from last campaign.
The Bruins said goodbye to standouts Jordin Canada and Monique Billings, cornerstones of last year’s 27-win team. Canada and Billings averaged 17 and 15.3 points, 3.7 and 9.5 rebounds, accounted for a majority of defensive statistics with Canada garnering 114 steals and Billings 56 blocks, and gave UCLA consistent go-tos in tight situations.
“Everybody knew the ball was going to go through Jordin Canada's and Monique Billings' hands,” Bruins coach Cori Close said at Pac-12 media day in October.
UCLA’s established a higher standard in recent years, reaching the second weekend of the NCAA tournament in three straight seasons and earning final AP rankings of No. 15 or better. Before Close’s arrival and the current run of Sweet 16 finishes, UCLA had not reached the second weekend since 1999.
But the outlook for continuing on that impressive pace clouded in the very first game without Canada and Billings. UCLA dropped its season opener to Loyola Marymount, 69-63.
Great college basketball programs regroup after losing stars, though, and that’s quickly what UCLA has done heading into the 2018 U.S. Virgin Islands Paradise Jam. The Bruins are winners of three straight upon arrival to the loaded tournament, including a victory over a top 20-ranked Georgia team on Nov. 14.
“The day after that loss at LMU, we had to have more pride in defense. I think as a team, we did that,” Kennedy Burke said after the Georgia win.
Turnover-generation played a huge part in UCLA’s success a season ago; the Bruins ranked No. 32 in the nation in steals. Team defense might end up looking different for UCLA in 2018-19 without a prolific turnover-creator like Canada, but the Bruins can thrive in different facets.
That fits in the theme Close has touted early this season: This UCLA team finding its own identity, exclusive from what last year’s squad accomplished.
“The biggest way we can honor them is to continue to move forward,” Close said last month.
UCLA takes an important step to that end with the Paradise Jam, facing three excellent opponents in as many days – and each with a unique makeup.
The Bruins open against legendary coach Sylvia Hatchell’s North Carolina Tar Heels, a team featuring a standout center in Janelle Bailey. Defending Bailey and keeping her off the glass offers a test for UCLA forward Michaela Onyenwere, a key role player in last year’s success who now takes on a starring role in 2018-19.
Night Two against Kentucky presents a different matchup challenge. The Wildcats are running a full-court press this season, and employ an offense reliant primarily on the guards. The UCLA backcourt of Burke and Japreece Dean take center stage.
UCLA rounds out the Paradise Jam against USF, a burgeoning NCAA tournament fixture in the same vein as the Bruins. Coach Jose Fernandez has built a consistent winner at USF, with a rare lineup able to match UCLA’s collective length.
For a team aiming to establish a new identity like UCLA, a tournament the caliber of the Paradise Jam is the ideal barometer.
Don't forget to catch the 2018 Paradise Jam live right here on FloHoops.
Kyle Kensing is a freelance sports journalist in southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.