UCLA Embraces an Unusual Role to Push Through to a Final Four Few Thought Possible

Mick Cronin's team is far from the typical Bruins powerhouses of history, but it's rode its March surge all the way to the final weekend.
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INDIANAPOLIS — The on-court celebration was just about over when Mick Cronin found a bottle of hand sanitizer on the corner of the court. He picked it up, squirted some on his mitts, then grabbed a pile of East Region championship hats. He was going to throw them into the stands to family and friends amid the ecstatic UCLA cheering section when red-coated security guards rushed in to stop this heinous act of communal joy.

Cronin turned away with a laugh. Apparently the hats were viewed as potential health hazard, carrying COVID-19 or something from the Lucas Oil Stadium floor to the folks in the stands. Safety-first here in the men's NCAA tournament bubble, a strange place where the strangest surviving team is Cronin’s Bruins.

He did get to join the fans in doing the UCLA eight-clap for his No. 11 seed, and did get to point out the legion of doubters who appraised his team with extreme skepticism round after round after round. “Nobody picked us,” the second-year coach at John Wooden’s university said. “Nobody believed in us. That's how we like it."

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UCLA's Mick Cronin celebrates with his team after beating Michigan

They like it, they love it, they get at least one more round of it. And with this latest heart-stopping advance comes a wild historical turnabout.

UCLA, gritty underdog winner of 11 national championships, is going to the men's Final Four, where it will play monster juggernaut Gonzaga, winner of zero titles and a national non-factor until this century. The Zags will be favored by a million. It will be the final improbable matchup in an improbable season that seemed like it might never get to this last stage.

UCLA has sent some of the greatest teams in the history of the game to the Final Four—and now it will send one seeded 11th in the East Region and No. 44 on the overall tournament seed list. The Bruins were ahead of just two other at-large teams, Wichita State and Drake. They staggered into this tourney on a four-game losing streak and now have won five straight.

The Bruins survived Tom Izzo and Michigan State in the First Four, then romped past BYU and Abilene Christian to reach the Sweet 16, and now have won consecutive thrillers over the top teams in their region. They took down No. 2 seed Alabama Sunday night in overtime, and now No. 1 Michigan. The score Tuesday night was 51–49, a half-court grinder in which UCLA simply kept fighting and refused to fold.

The Bruins won with the brilliance of Johnny Juzang, a sophomore who scored 55% of his team's points. It was the best individual offensive performance of this tournament, and one of the greatest efforts ever at a school that has had an abundance of them. It might not have been Bill Walton going 21 of 22 from the field in the 1973 title game, or Lew Alcindor going for 37 points and 20 rebounds in 1969 against Purdue, or Gail Goodrich scoring 42 against Michigan in 1965—but it was damn good.

“Johnny Juzang, we rode him as hard as we could tonight,” Cronin said.

Not only did Juzang carry the Bruins, but he persevered through rolling an ankle early in the second half. After getting a new tape job, the Kentucky transfer came back to finish the job.

UCLA's Johnny Juzang during the Bruins' game vs. Michigan

“I just needed a second,” Juzang said. “The adrenaline—I’ll feel it tonight. It’s March Madness, so I was trying to get out there as quick as I can and help my brothers.

“We’ve got some lion-hearted guys on this team. We’ve got some warriors. The guy to your right is putting his heart on the floor. The guy to your left is putting his heart on the floor. So I wanted to get out there and put my heart on the floor.”

The Bruins won with tenacious defense that kept Michigan's shooting under 40% and forced 14 turnovers. They harassed putative first-round draft pick Franz Wagner into a nightmare performance: 1 for 10 from the field, including two missed three-pointers (one an airball) in the final 20 seconds. They made 7-footer Hunter Dickinson work for his meager 11 points. They turned point guard Mike Smith into a non-entity.

“That was an unbelievable effort by our guys defensively tonight,” Cronin said.

And the Bruins won with Cronin cobbling together lineups and play calls and possessions that seemed doomed but worked out spectacularly. With starting center Cody Riley in foul trouble much of the second half, Cronin called on deep bench player Kenneth Nwuba to play a career-high 21 minutes and combat the mammoth Dickinson in the post. He had 6’ 6” Jaime Jaquez Jr. take a few turns battling Michigan’s big men in the post. And after UCLA’s nine-point lead dwindled to three, Cronin came up with a deft play call out of a timeout for a Riley basket, keeping a grip on momentum.

“You can draw stuff up, but the kids have got to execute,” Cronin said, but the drawing up part was on-point Tuesday night.

And to think, people were underwhelmed by UCLA hiring Cronin in April 2019. Wasn’t a big enough name for a blueblood job, didn’t play an entertaining style, hadn’t had enough March success, they said. How’s this for March success? How about taking down two of the guys who were in the running for every national Coach of the Year award, Alabama’s Nate Oats and Michigan’s Juwan Howard?

Cronin has never lacked for confidence, which is one of the reasons why he believed he was every bit deserving of the UCLA job and sitting in Wooden’s chair. And now he’s proving it.

“April 9, 2019, I told you, ‘I spell fun w-i-n,’ “ Cronin said, referencing his hiring date at the school. “You have to find a way to win, and these guys are having the most fun they have ever had in their life back in that locker room—because they won. I told them I was going to teach them how to win.”

UCLA celebrates with its East Region trophy

Howard, for all his remarkable success already at Michigan, is still working through one of the key components of winning: drawing up effective plays at the end of games. The Wolverines were eliminated from the Big Ten tournament after a brutal final possession against Ohio State ended with a Mike Smith jump shot off of zero movement or passing. And here Tuesday, the Wolverines failed to score a field goal in the final five minutes and missed their last eight shots from the field.

The capper came with half a second left, theoretically the point at which the only good play is a lob pass. Fortuitously, Michigan had the tallest player on the floor by far in Dickinson, who seemingly would an ideal target for a lob. But Howard had Dickinson inbounding the ball instead of receiving it. His pass went to Wagner, whose three thudded off the rim and set off the wild UCLA celebration.

This has been a men's tournament of record-setting upheaval in terms of upsets, but we were on the verge of a chalky Final Four: No. 1 seeds Gonzaga and Baylor, No. 2 seed Houston, with Michigan widely expected to round out the field. The Bruins had other plans. Thus the closest thing we’ve ever had to an underdog UCLA team moves on to meet the most powerful team we’ve seen from outside the power conferences in 30 years.

The March gods owed us a final burst of Madness, and here it came. Any UCLA fans who want a regional championship hat, come see Mick Cronin. He’s got them to give away.

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