This time there is no Walton, Jabbar or Marques Johnson. There is not even Chris Smith, Jalen Hill or Daishen Nix. UCLA doesn’t have the players it used to, or the players it’s supposed to have, and yet it has ended up in the place it once had exclusive rights to: the NCAA Final Four.
UCLA has 19 Final Four appearances in its glorious basketball history, and nearly all of them were led by an extraordinary combination of elite talent. There were Hall of Famers, All-Americans, future NBA All-Stars. When UCLA goes this far in the tournament, it’s because the Bruins were better.
So what, exactly, just happened?
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In just his second year as a coach, with three regular players hoping to play essential roles, Mick Cronin was placed in the same category as Ben Howland, Jim Harrick, Larry Brown, John Wooden. And somehow, he did something that only Brown, perhaps, ever did: he made an unlikely Final Four race. The Bruins lost the last four games of their regular season and got into the March Madness. And now they have become the second First Four team to reach the Final Four, joining the 2011 VCU.
Brown’s 1980 team was the closest to a UCLA surprise. Those Bruins finished 17-9 and fourth in the Pac-10. They had three first-year regulars, which affected their success, but they also featured seven future NBA players.
“When you’re trying to preach, when you’re building a show, and you’ve heard me say this, first of all on April 9, 2019, I told you, funny WIM spelling,” Cronin told reporters after the game. “Our score has been elite, 11 or 12 on offense, but tonight it was our defense. You have to find a way to win. And these guys are having more fun than ever in that locker room. Because they won. “
In the space of three days, UCLA eliminated the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds in the Eastern Region, Michigan, the Big Ten Conference regular season champion and Alabama, the regular season and tournament champion in the SEC.
In both cases, the Bruins advanced to a level of defensive engagement that had been beyond them for much of this year. They’re an elite jump shot team, and they don’t spin the ball, but they don’t excel at generating high-percentage shots. They were unlikely to outperform the Wolverines or Crimson Tide, so they worked to limit possessions and make every cut, every action, Michigan trying as uncomfortable as possible.
“We won it on the defensive end,” Cronin said. “We did not commit a fault. We did not give a tray. We forced shots on ourselves down the stretch and that was the key. We force ourselves to shoot ”.
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Michigan had every chance to beat the Bruins, just like Alabama did before, and like Michigan State it made it all the way back in the First Four. None of those three made it. UCLA reached the Final Four scoring, on average, 66.6 points in regulation time. The further the Bruins advanced, the uglier they needed the game to be. This was achieved, in part, by patience with the ball to consume as much of the shot clock as possible and still conjure up a worthy shot attempt. It was, moreover, the product of extraordinary defensive efforts.
Michigan, which owns the nation’s 9th offense, was limited to .83 points per possession. All-American Hunter Dickinson was the only Michigan player to reach double figures in scoring, and he had 11 points. Wings Franz Wagner and Chaundee Brown, who had taken on much of the offensive responsibility that Isaiah Livers handled prior to injury, were put down by Jaime Jaquez and Jules Bernard and scored a combined 12 points.
The Wolverines missed four point-blank shots and three open 3-pointers in the final 3 minutes, and each of those shots would have put them ahead. They didn’t make a basket in the last 5 minutes. They committed 14 turnovers, nearly one for every four possessions they had during the game.
“It’s very disappointing for our guys to work really hard this year, with just one possession,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard told reporters. And that’s what happens sometimes. In basketball, there are one or two possessions that can really help or hurt you, and for us, it falls short. “
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UCLA entered the season without Nix, the five-star pick who got engaged to the Bruins last year but chose to join the NBA G League program en route. Smith tore his ACL in a win over Utah on New Year’s Eve. Hill decided to leave the show in February for personal reasons.
Cronin assigned more offensive responsibility to Kentucky transfer Johnny Juzang, encouraging him to be more of a scorer than a shooter. As a five-star prospect in high school, Juzang was expected to be elite from long range. He’s shooting 34.5 percent. But Cronin and his team convinced Juzang that he had other means to get big numbers. He has averaged 21.6 points in the NCAA Tournament, including 28 of the Bruins’ 51 points against Michigan.
“I just approached it as one more game. We have been very focused on this tournament, ”said Juzang. “You don’t want to, as a player, you don’t like to pressure yourself. I know that the whole team was worried because we left him on the court and we are going to give everything we have. I mean, the shots just went in and the teammates found me. I wouldn’t say anything different.
“I love each of these guys. It’s amazing, man. Surreal. Surreal. Something, you know, that you only dream of growing up. And doing it with such an incredible group of guys, such incredible staff, such incredible coaches, it makes it so wonderful. It’s nice. It’s beautiful to share this moment with, you know, your siblings and fantastic people. “
Neither of his brothers is All-American. Few can be future professionals. But they will all go to the Final Four. As many Bruins before them did, with bigger names, more skill, but no greater desire to win.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.