How local stars could prep UCLA, USC for turnarounds amid recruiting complexities

Mick Cronin’s season-long lament has been that he has too many freshmen.

It might not be long before he cannot get enough.

If winning big in college basketball was primarily about importing talent fresh out of high school, the UCLA coach would likely be on the verge of much happier days.

The Southern California classes of 2025 and ’26 are stocked with more stars than a Michelin restaurant guidebook, leaving coaches such as Cronin and USC’s Andy Enfield salivating over the possibilities as they also navigate the roster challenges caused by the transfer portal.

Tounde Yessoufou, a 6-foot-5 junior small forward from Santa Maria St. Joseph, reminds some of a young Jimmy Butler with his strength and ability to score in a variety of ways.

Brandon McCoy, a 6-foot-4 sophomore point guard from St. John Bosco, is a relentless competitor who runs a team and attacks the basket with equal fearlessness.

Jason Crowe Jr., a 6-foot-2 sophomore point guard from Lynwood, is a natural scorer who has topped 2,000 points in less than two seasons.

A sprinkling of these kinds of prospects could portend an immediate turnaround for the Los Angeles college rivals that enter their Saturday showdown at Galen Center with equally abysmal 8-11 records. The ’26 class boasts three local five-star prospects in McCoy, Crowe and Chatsworth’s Alijah Arenas, making it one of the best in recent memory.

“I think ’26 is the class where somebody can put their stamp on it,” said Jason Crowe Sr., the namesake son’s coach at Lynwood, “and kind of elevate themselves if they get a foothold in that class.”

Of course, roster construction is no longer as simple as bringing in star freshmen; nothing is easy in college basketball these days.

Among the many things Cronin and Enfield must ponder is how many transfers they need, how many they can realistically land and how many of their own players might leave because they have exhausted their eligibility or want to bolt for the NBA or another college team.

Maybe one of UCLA’s European freshmen who barely plays wants to go home. Perhaps somebody else wants a bigger role on another team. Even Bruins junior guard Lazar Stefanovic, who just arrived from Utah, could — in theory — depart based on the NCAA’s recently temporarily lifting restrictions on the one-time transfer rule.

The potential mayhem has left Cronin to navigate a free-for-all that makes NBA free agency seem easy by comparison.

“Imagine everybody on the Clippers is a free agent at the end of the year,” Cronin told The Times this week while sitting on a chair along the wall of his team’s practice facility. “That’s college basketball.”

Watching a team filled with freshmen and sophomores regularly lose to juniors, seniors and graduate transfers has reinforced one of Cronin’s beliefs about what it takes to win in college basketball.

Be old. Stay old.

But mantras are easily said and undone. Since landing transfers requires mutual interest, there’s no guarantee the Bruins will be older next season beyond the freshmen who stay turning into sophomores.

Every transfer Cronin coveted last year besides Stefanovic ended up at another school, leading to an exceedingly young batch of Bruins that includes seven freshmen and three sophomores. Cronin would like his team to get older beyond the natural progression of age.

It’s no secret UCLA could use an infusion of transfers. Among the Bruins’ urgent needs are another point guard, a sharpshooting wing player and an impact center given the likelihood that Adem Bona will enter the NBA draft. Landing them probably will require a large infusion of name, image and likeness cash since Cronin has acknowledged his team’s NIL resources are not where they need to be.

Elite high school talent could help as well. The only newcomer currently on the way is Corona Centennial guard Eric Freeny, though UCLA also remains in the running for Khaman Maluach, a 7-foot-2 center from NBA Academy Africa who is reportedly expected to visit campus next month. The Bruins will have to beat out fellow suitors Duke, Kentucky and Kansas, not to mention the G League Ignite, to land the big man.

The next two high school classes offer even more intriguing possibilities.

“High school basketball right now, the next two or three, four years, is really strong in Southern California,” Cronin said, “and that will always be a priority for us.”

That might sound funny coming from a coach who just brought in a freshman class featuring four Europeans and two players from out of state in addition to Riverside native Devin Williams, the lone Southern Californian.

It wasn’t by design.

The Bruins missed out on several local targets in what was a largely underwhelming high school class, forcing Cronin and his assistants to literally search the world over. They ended up with a group of freshmen who, while promising, have endured predictable stumbles while putting UCLA on track for its first losing record in nearly a decade.

Some observers who have watched the famously demanding and volatile coach yell at his players during games wonder if his abrasive style could hurt recruiting. Matt Dunn, who coaches McCoy and widely coveted junior guard Elzie Harrington at St. John Bosco, said his top two players could handle high decibels and brutal honesty.

“I don’t think that is a concern for either one of them,” Dunn said. “They are pretty tough kids and they’ve been coached hard and they have great parents who have parented them hard, if that’s a correct term, so they would be totally fine with that.

“I think they fit coach Cronin very well in terms of how versatile they are defensively, they’re both incredibly intelligent students and young men, so I think in terms of the UCLA culture of school they fit great, but obviously kids like that fit at a lot of places.”

USC’s incoming freshman class that includes Trent Perry, a McDonald’s All-American from Harvard-Westlake, alongside guard Liam Campbell and forward Brody Kozlowski, is ranked No. 10 nationally by — Enfield’s third consecutive class to hit that threshold. Campbell was born in Northridge but plays for Owyhee High in Meridian, Idaho; Kozlowski stars for Corner Canyon in Draper, Utah.

“We built this program by recruiting locally first and then going out,” Enfield said. “The more success we had, the more we were able to go and recruit nationally, but we always look at California as a place that has outstanding players. … We’ve had a lot of success with local players who have won a lot of games here and are now playing in the NBA.”

Winning now at the college level requires a crazier balancing act than ever, coaches forced to re-recruit their own rosters annually in addition to bringing in the right mix of freshmen and transfers. In the future, Cronin hopes a roster dotted with more veterans will help the Bruins grow into something special.

“That would be ideal to be old,” Cronin said, “but I think the reality at UCLA is if you’re playing young guys, they need to have NBA potential.”

Finding that type of player won’t be hard over the next few years. All one has to do is go to a local high school gym.

Times staff writer Thuc Nhi Nguyen contributed to this report.

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