2021 CJBL Preview (Final Four Edition)

  • By Tim Wallis, Day 77, 2021

Below are season previews for the 2020 Final Four - Syracuse, Texas, UCLA and Arizona.

Syracuse Set to Begin Title Defence

The Syracuse Orange will begin their title defence without two championship starters, #1 JBL draft pick Quavious Williamson (Huskies) and #18 pick Zach Lynch (Thunder), their starting power forward and point guard respectively. Returning will be junior SG Dylan Lawson, senior forward Isaiah Carlyle and sophomore center Jalyn Jones, as well as last year’s 6th man, junior C/F Deven Michell.

Syracuse clearly had a focus on recruiting a potential replacement for Williamson, bringing in three of the top fifty rated high school players, all of them big forwards. 6-9 SF Dakarai Savage, 6-10 F Ezra Kiris and 7-0 PF Jakobe Miller will all be in the mix for minutes in the Orange front court, along with Jones, Carlyle and Michell.

Interestingly, Syracuse did not recruit a replacement for Lynch, clearly showing their faith in junior Demetrice Milsap and sophomore Will Hubby to handle the point guard duties this season. Milsap served capably as a backup to Ashanti Brooks (drafted #24 by the Vultures in 2020) two seasons ago but saw just 52 minutes of court time last season behind freshmen Lynch and Hubby. Both players look like huge question marks as the starter, but one or both is obviously highly rated internally.

Should the point guard question be resolved, Syracuse will be in a strong position to defend their crown with one of the most highly rated recruiting crops and much of the core group remaining from last year’s triumphant tournament run.

Texas Look To Take Next Step

After falling just 2 points short of a national title, the Texas Longhorns will return four of their five starters, but that fifth will be difficult to replace: #2 JBL draft pick PG Josh Gamble (Cyclones). The front line is likely to look the same this season with sophomore C Nedeljko Hicks, junior PF Andrew Fishback and junior SF DeAnthony Hunter all key players.

Sophomore G/F Tanner Johnson may be shuffled back into a sixth man role to make way for the Longhorns two prize recruits to occupy the back court. PG Eric Eliason has the task of replacing Gamble but is seen as more of a scorer than his predecessor. SG Zaire Kilby also has a reputation as a gunner type, so it will be interesting to see how the Texas offense operates next season. It’s possible that Hunter will take on a point forward role at times in order to keep the ball coming in to the big men.

Many saw the Longhorns as somewhat of a one man show last season, so this 2021 version of the team has a lot to prove. Eliason is highly rated and may well have the tools to plug the hole left by Gamble while Kilby appears to be an upgrade on Johnson at shooting guard. Hicks had an impressive freshman year and needs only to improve his outside shot (or learn to stop taking them) to become a top center in the conference. Gamble alone didn’t take this team to a 30-2 record and they should be in the mix for the title again this season.

Bruins New Duo

The pairing of childhood friends Odell Bracey (#6 Dragons) and Detrez Owens (#5 Kings) was the story of UCLA’s 2020 season with the pair combining for almost 42 points per game and overshadowing their teammates during their brief stopover on the way to the JBL. No other Bruin averaged double figures in scoring, but junior PG Scott Lewis, sophomore PF Avery Stallings and junior C Brandon Glenn form a strong supporting cast and sophomore C/F Evan McLeod and senior SF Aaron Dilligard have proven to be capable depth players.

The Bruins two most highly rated recruits should slot right into the positions vacated by Bracey and Owens. SG Jordan Poole is a 6-6 scoring machine that should immediately become the focal point of the UCLA offense. He averaged 31.6ppg as a high school senior and is sure to benefit from the type of ball movement that Lewis, Stallings and Glenn showed last season. The trio averaged 3.8, 3.5 and 4.7 assists respectively as UCLA patiently sought out the best opportunities for their star wings.

SF Brandon Kelly will take over from Owens and while he may not contribute as much in the scoring column, he’s hungry on the boards and can smother opponents with his length. After fielding the 6-5 duo of Owens and Bracey at SG and SF, the 6-6 Poole and 6-11 Kelly will give the Bruins a different look and they should have a better balance of offense and defense. Despite losing two top six draft picks, don’t be surprised if UCLA improve on their 21-12 regular season record and return to the Final Four.

Arizona Faces Challenges

The Wildcats have lost three members of their starting five and have seen their recruiting class come under some criticism, resulting in their early rankings plummeting from the #6 spot they held going into the CJBL tournament. C Jamaya Sprinkle (#7 Vultures), SF Mitchell Van Bree (#21 Dragons) and PG Sergio Loyola (#48 Hurricanes) all made their way to the pros, leaving a pair of juniors in SG DJ Hempy and PF Xavier Miller as the only returning starters.

The Wildcats only managed to entice one top 50 rated high school player to Arizona, C Connor Maitland, who has a similar game to Sprinkle but is already an inch taller and 20 pounds heavier. He’ll walk into the starting center role, but point guard and small forward are not as clear cut.

Contending for the point guard spot will be junior Mike Williams, who has been Loyola’s backup for the last two years, senior combo guard Lorenzo Miller and a pair of freshmen: 6-1 Tre Fleming and 6-3 Ramil Collins. Williams hasn’t looked like the answer so far and Miller has spent most of his college career riding the pine despite some eye-popping per 36 numbers. Fleming and Collins are a good chance to be duelling for the right to start on opening night.

In a similar situation at small forward, juniors G/F Donald Prochet and SF Payton Trotti are yet to show anything to suggest they can step up to replace Van Bree. Recruit G/F Andres Wheeler is a solid player that might go straight to the top of the depth chart at the position.

With so many questions at multiple positions, it’s hard to see Arizona posing the same threat to opponents this year as they did in 2020. Hempy and Miller are capable of taking on more responsibilities but the Wildcats just don’t appear to have recruited well enough to maintain their standing.