Second-ranked UCLA tips off a big week in Las Vegas on Monday night, facing upset-minded Bellarmine in the first game of the Empire Classic.
The Bruins (4-0) have a No. 1 vs. No. 2 showdown and rematch of last spring's overtime Final Four encounter with Gonzaga looming on Tuesday. However, they must first face the Knights (0-4).
UCLA is riding a perfect start to a season laden with expectations, coming off a run to last season's national semifinal.
Returners from that team Johnny Juzang, Jaime Jaquez Jr., Jules Bernard and Tyger Campbell have all set the tone for the 2021-22 season, each scoring in double figures through the first four games.
Juzang is averaging 21.5 points per game and Bernard has scored 18.0 points per game. Jaquez bumped his output to 18.0 after scoring 20 in a 98-63 rout of North Florida on Wednesday, and Campbell adds 13.0 points per game.
Campbell has emerged as a dangerous 3-point threat for the Bruins in the early going, shooting 61.1 percent on 4.5 attempts per game. He shot worse than 30 percent in each of the previous two seasons.
After Campbell made all four of his long-range attempts against North Florida, UCLA coach Mick Cronin said it was "not a surprise at all."
"He's put an unbelievable amount of time in, and experience tells me that guys shoot at higher percentages as they get older," Cronin said. "We chart our shooting drills ... it's on the clock, how many makes, and he's been a consistent winner."
Bernard and Jaquez are both shooting 50 percent from beyond the arc through UCLA's first four games. The two each made two 3-pointers in the Bruins' signature win of the season to date, an 86-77 overtime win over then-No. 4 Villanova on Nov. 12.
While UCLA awaits its second top-five matchup of the season on Tuesday, Bellarmine is facing its third top 10-ranked opponent of the campaign in the Bruins.
The Knights opened 2021-22 with a 96-67 loss to then-No.7 and current No.6 Purdue. They faced top-ranked Gonzaga on Friday in Spokane, Wash., and lost, 92-50.
Despite the strength of Bellarmine's opening slate, which also includes losses to Murray State and Saint Mary's, Knights coach Scott Davenport said his team has had considerable issues on defense.
"When we have bad offense, it totally affects our defense," Davenport said via Bellarmine's official website. "Championship teams ... when they have a bad possession, they go down as a unit and get a stop. We're letting our offense affect our defense. This is how teams make runs."
Bellarmine will have its hands full against a UCLA offense averaging 94.8 points per game and shooting 42.4 percent from 3-point range.
Bellarmine moved up from NCAA Division II to Division I last year and emerged as a surprise contender in the Atlantic Sun Conference. The Knights finished second in the league in the regular season and earned an invitation to the postseason College Basketball Invitational.
Dylan Penn, a First Team All-ASUN selection last season, leads the Knights at 14.8 points per game thus far in 2021-22.
--Field Level Media