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UCLA’s senior trio has persevered in restoring Bruins to national prominence

The point guard was slow and short, despite that heap of dreadlocks.

For all his toughness, the small forward doubted himself amid repeated mistakes and his coach’s non-stop yelling.

The shooting guard didn’t have much to offer other than a special skill that could be offset by his inability to make his own shot.

Four years later, on the eve of what could be their final home game, the only thing that has remained unchanged is the trio of seniors who mountain hair.

Point guard Tyger Campbell has become one of the best playmakers in the country. Small forward Jaime Jaquez Jr. could become the Pac-12 Conference Player of the Year. Shooting guard David Singleton has become a sixth star on one of the best teams in the country.

“We’ve built something really special here,” Jaquez said Thursday night as he reflected on his retirement at Pauley Pavilion.

Tears could flow both on and off the field before the No. 4 Bruins (26-4 overall, 17-2 Pac-12) take on the No. 8 Arizona (25-5, 14-5) on Senior Night, fans who bid farewell Saturday to Campbell, Jaquez and Singleton alongside fellow seniors Kenneth Nwuba and Russell Stong IV.

Recruited by Steve Alford, they were the perfect players for Mick Cronin. Difficult. Fearless. Keen to improve.

That’s not to say it was easy amid their new coach’s unashamedly demanding style.

“People say, ‘You’re so hard on them,'” Cronin said of an approach that sees the Bruins on the verge of becoming their first No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament since 2008. “Well no, no , I’m like you should be. The kids haven’t changed, the problem is the adults have. So I just try to do what I think is right for them, teach them right and wrong, teach them responsibility, teach them what is required of them in the real world.

UCLA coach Mick Cronin, left, speaks with guard Tyger Campbell during a victory in Washington State on Dec. 30. “People say, ‘You’re so hard on them,'” Cronin said of his players. “Well no, no, I am as you should be.”

(Young Kwak / Associated Press)

Campbell, Jaquez and Singleton could have sulked early in their careers. They could have revolted. They could have switched.

Instead, they embraced every bit of criticism, no matter how sharp or deafening. The basic expectations were effort, rebounding and defense.

“He really tried to teach us his way of playing basketball,” Campbell said of Cronin, “which is winning basketball.”

Every player suffered devastating injuries. Campbell lost his first season to a torn knee ligament. Singleton was recovering from a broken foot when Cronin arrived in April 2019. Jaquez’s junior season was hampered by troublesome ankles.

They stuck it out and endeared themselves to fans eager to connect with their heroes over several years as opposed to the drive-through careers of one-time players.

“That these guys have been left feeling like they have some unfinished business and that we’re going to try to get UCLA back to where it was – an announced program – I tip my hat to them and it’s really an honor to go alongside them standing as fellow Bruins,” said Michael Warrenthe point guard who won two national championships in the 1960s with the Bruins under coach John Wooden.

“To these guys who have been left feeling like they have some unfinished business and we’re going to try to get UCLA back to where it was – an announced program – I tip my hat to them.”

—Michael Warren, former UCLA security guard, on the Bruins’ senior leadership

The best illustration of how little the temporary Bruins resonated came during a recent home game when Peyton Watson, who spent a season with the team on his way to the NBA, was greeted with an awkward silence when he was shown on the Pauley Pavilion video board.

Compare that to the cheers and tears that are sure to flood the place on Saturday. Jaquez couldn’t even get out of class earlier this week without another student asking him to take a selfie with him.

“That was probably the funniest thing that happened to me this week,” said Jaquez.

UCLA's Jaime Jaquez Jr.  dunks against Arizona State on March 2, 2023.

UCLA’s Jaime Jaquez Jr. dunks during the Bruins’ 79-61 victory over Arizona State on Thursday night.

(Ronald Martinez / Getty Images)

Classmates aren’t the only ones who have enjoyed the seniors’ ability to maximize their talents while taking their team to the next level.

“It’s the ideal of college basketball,” said Jamaal Wilkes, the former Bruins forward who was described by Wooden as the ideal player when he encountered Keith Wilkes on his way to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. “All those guys, none of them are complaining. They put the team first. They want the team to win.”

As someone who attends both the Bruins’ practices and games, Warren has become a supplier of Jaquez’s “superb” footwork and Singleton’s dedication to extra shooting. Warren has developed an especially close bond with Campbell, given their identical positions, height — both are 5 feet 11 — and Midwestern roots. Campbell’s curiosity about the way Warren handled certain situations on the field is one of the many ways he has impressed his predecessor.

“From my point of view,” said Warren, “he’s lived up to and exceeded every expectation I’ve placed on him in my mind, the way he leads the team as an extension of Mick on the field.”

Another UCLA legend lived in the Bruins corner last week as Gail Goodrich sat behind the team bench during a win over Utah on the road. After speaking to Singleton and learning he is from Inglewood, which Goodrich won a championship with the Lakers in 1972he watched Campbell and Jaquez make the moves needed to shut down the Utes.

“One thing you can’t take away from these three, they give you 100%, they go all out, and UCLA should be very, very proud of that, because there’s no stopping these guys,” Goodrich said. “Even if they don’t play particularly well, they find a way to win and that’s the mark of a championship team.”

UCLA guard David Singleton shoots a free throw against Arizona State on March 2, 2023 in Los Angeles.

Bruins guard David Singleton shoots a free throw against Arizona State on Thursday.

(Ringo H. W. Chiu / Associated Press)

Regardless of what happens in the next month, UCLA’s record book will contain multiple references to its seniors. Singleton has played in a school-record 157 games. Campbell and Jaquez could be UCLA’s first three-time All-Pac-12 players since Darren Collison from 2007 to 2009. Jaquez could be the Bruins’ first conference player of the year since Kevin Love in 2008.

Not that any of those personal accomplishments matter to Jaquez.

“I have three awards on my list,” Jaquez said after the Bruins clinched the Pac-12 regular season title as the conference and NCAA tournaments quickly approached. “So I already have one, now I’m looking for two more.”