INDIANAPOLIS – The on-court celebration was about to end when Mick Cronin found a bottle of hand sanitizer in the corner of the court. He picked it up, threw some into his gloves, and then grabbed a bunch of East Region championship caps. I was about to throw them into the bleachers for family and friends amid UCLA’s cheering section when red-clad security guards rushed to stop this heinous act of community cheer.
Cronin turned away laughing. The hats were apparently seen as a potential health hazard, as they carried COVID-19 or something from the Lucas Oil Stadium floor to people in the stands. Safety comes first here in the NCAA men’s tournament bubble, a strange place where the strangest surviving team is the Cronin Bruins.
He joined fans in giving UCLA’s eight cheers for their No. 11 seed, and was able to point to the legion of skeptics who evaluated his team with extreme skepticism round after round after round. “Nobody chose us,” said sophomore coach at John Wooden’s college. “Nobody believed in us. This is how we like it. “
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They like it, they love it, they get at least one more round. And with this latest heartbreaking breakthrough comes a wild historical twist.
UCLA, a fearless winner of 11 national championships, will go to the men’s Final Four, where they will face the giant monster Gonzaga, winner of zero titles and one national factor until this century. The Zags will be favored by a million. It will be the last unlikely showdown in an unlikely season that seemed like it would never reach this final stage.
UCLA has sent some of the best teams in game history to the Final Four, and will now send one of the 11th seeds in the Eastern Region and 44th on the tournament’s overall seeded list. The Bruins were ahead of two other teams overall, Wichita State and Drake. They staggered into this tournament on a four-game losing streak and have now won five in a row.
The Bruins outlasted Tom Izzo and Michigan State in the First Four, then edged out BYU and Abilene Christian to reach the Sweet 16, and have now won back-to-back thrillers about the best teams in their region. They defeated No. 2 seed Alabama Sunday night in overtime, and now No. 1 Michigan. Tuesday night’s score was 51-49, a half-court game in which UCLA just 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 made in a school that has had an abundance of them. It may not have been Bill Walton with 21 of 22 shots from the field in the 1973 title game, or Lew Alcindor with 37 points and 20 rebounds in 1969 against Purdue, or Gail Goodrich scoring 42 against Michigan in 1965, but it was very Okay .
“Johnny Juzang, we rode it as hard as we could tonight,” Cronin said.
Juzang not only charged the Bruins, but persevered by rolling an ankle early in the second half. After landing a new tape job, Kentucky Transfer came back to finish the job.
“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 as fast as possible and help my brothers.
“We have some lion-hearted guys on this team. We have some warriors. The boy on your right is putting his heart to the ground. The boy on your left is putting his heart to the ground. So I wanted to go out and put my heart down. “
The Bruins won with a tenacious defense that kept Michigan’s shooting below 40% and forced 14 turnovers. They hounded supposed first-round draft pick Franz Wagner in a nightmare performance: 1 of 10 shots from the field, including two missed 3s (one with an air ball) in the final 20 seconds. They had 7-footer Hunter Dickinson work for his meager 11 points. They made point guard Mike Smith a non-entity.
“That was an incredible effort from our guys on defense tonight,” Cronin said.
And the Bruins won with Cronin fixing lineups and plays and possessions that looked doomed but worked out spectacularly. With starting center Cody Riley in foul trouble for much of the second half, Cronin asked deep bench Kenneth Nwuba to play his career-high 21 minutes and fight the mammoth Dickinson at the post. He had 6-foot-6 Jaime Jaquez Jr. take a few turns fighting Michigan’s big men at the post. And after UCLA’s nine-point lead was reduced to three, Cronin made a slick play in a timeout for a Riley basket, keeping the momentum going.
“You can draw things, but children have to execute,” Cronin said, but the drawing part was spot on Tuesday night.
And to think that people were disappointed that UCLA hired Cronin in April 2019. He wasn’t a big enough name for a blue-blooded job, he didn’t play with an entertaining style, he hadn’t been successful enough in March, they said. How is this for the hit of March? How about defeating two of the guys competing for all the National Coach of the Year awards, Alabama’s Nate Oats and Michigan’s Juwan Howard?
Cronin has never lacked confidence, which is one of the reasons he believed he fully deserved the UCLA position and sitting in Wooden’s chair. And now he’s showing it.
“On April 9, 2019 I told you, ‘Spelling fun to win,’” Cronin said, referring to his hiring date at the school. “You have to find a way to win, and these guys are having more fun than ever in that locker room, because they won. I told them I was going to teach them to win. “
Howard, despite his remarkable success already in Michigan, is still working on one of the key components of victory: crafting 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 Mike Smith’s jump shot with no move or pass. And here on Tuesday, the Wolverines failed to score a field goal in the final five minutes and missed their last eight shots from the field.
The blocker came in with half a second left, theoretically the point where the only good play is a lob pass. Fortunately, Michigan had the tallest player on the court by far in Dickinson, who would apparently be an ideal target for a balloon. But Howard made Dickinson enter the ball instead of catching it. His pass went to Wagner, whose three hit the rim and sparked a frenzy at UCLA.
This has been a record-breaking men’s tournament in terms of upsets, but we were on the brink of a limestone Final Four: No. 1 seeds Gonzaga and Baylor, No. 2 from Houston, and Michigan was expected to complete the tournament. countryside. The Bruins had other plans. So the closest we’ve had to an underdog UCLA team is moving forward to meeting the most powerful team we’ve seen outside of power conferences in 30 years.
The Gods of the March owed us one last outburst of madness, and there it came. Any UCLA fan who wants a regional championship cap, come see Mick Cronin. He has them to give away.
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.