Saturday, April 17, 2021

UCLA’s unlikely Final Four is new to the Bruins, but they won’t turn it down

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There is no Walton, Jabbar or Marques Johnson this time around. There isn’t even a Chris Smith, Jalen Hill, or Daishen Nix. UCLA doesn’t have the players it previously had, nor the players it is supposed to have, and it has always ended up where it once had exclusive rights: 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 comes this far into 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, short of three regular players he expected to fill vital roles, Mick Cronin put himself in the same category as Ben Howland, Jim Harrick, Larry Brown, John Wooden. And in some ways, he did something only Brown, perhaps, has ever done: make an unlikely run to the Final Four. The Bruins have lost the last four games of their regular season and slipped into the March craziness. And now, they’ve only become the second First Four team to reach the Final Four, joining VCU 2011.

Brown’s team in 1980 was the closest to a UCLA surprise. These Bruins finished 17-9 and fourth in the Pac-10. They had three freshman regulars, which affected their success, but they also featured seven future NBA players.

“When you try to preach, when you build a program – and you heard me say that, first of all on April 9, 2019, I told you – I spell fun WIM,” Cronin told the journalists after the game. “Our score was elite, 11th or 12th in attack, but tonight it was our defense. You have to find a way to win. And these guys are having the most fun of their lives in that locker room. Because they won.

Within three days, UCLA knocked out the No.1 and No.2 seeds in the Eastern Region, Michigan, the Big Ten Conference regular-season champion, and Alabama, the SEC regular season and tournament champion.

Either way, the Bruins advanced to a level of defensive engagement that had surpassed them for much of this year. They are an elite show jumping team, and they don’t return the ball, but they’re not great at generating high percentage shots. They were unlikely to outclass the Wolverines or Crimson Tide, so they worked to limit possessions and to make every cut – every action – that Michigan attempted as uncomfortable as possible.

“We won it on the defensive side,” Cronin said. “We didn’t make any mistakes. We have not given up on a lay-up. We forced shots above us on the stretch and that was the key. We forced shots at us.

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Michigan had every chance of defeating the Bruins, just like Alabama did before, and just like Michigan State did all the way back in the top four. None of these three succeeded. UCLA reached the Final Four with, on average, 66.6 points in settlement. The deeper the Bruins went, the uglier they needed the game to be. This was accomplished, in part, by patience with the ball to consume as much shot clock time as possible while still evoking a dignified shot attempt. It was, moreover, the product of extraordinary defensive efforts.

Michigan, which owns the nation’s No. 9 offense, was held to a meager 0.83 points per possession. All-American Hunter Dickinson was the only Michigan player to double the score, and he had 11 points. Wings Franz Wagner and Chaundee Brown, who had taken much of the offensive responsibility that Isaiah Livers handled before getting injured, were smothered by Jaime Jaquez and Jules Bernard and scored a total of 12 points.

The Wolverines missed four close range shots and three three-pointers in the final 3 minutes, and each of those shots would have put them in the lead. They haven’t made a basket in the last 5 minutes. They made 14 turnovers, almost one for every four possessions they had during the game.

“It’s very disappointing for our guys, who have worked really hard this year, coming down to one possession,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard told reporters. “And that’s how it is sometimes. In basketball there are one or two possessions that can really help or hurt you, and for us, we’ve been missing out.

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UCLA has entered the season without Nix, the five-star rookie who signed up with the Bruins last year but chose to join the NBA’s G-League pathway program. Smith tore up his ACL in a victory over Utah on New Years Eve. Hill chose to quit the program in February for personal reasons.

Cronin placed more offensive responsibility on Kentucky transfer Johnny Juzang, encouraging him to be more of a goalscorer than a shooter. As a five-star prospect in high school, Juzang had to be a long-distance elite. It shoots 34.5%. But Cronin and his team convinced Juzang that he had other ways of calling large numbers. He averages 21.6 points in the NCAA tournament, including 28 of the Bruins’ 51 points against Michigan.

“I just approached it like another game. We have been very attached to this tournament, ”said Juzang. “You don’t want to – as a player you don’t like to put pressure on yourself. I know the whole team was just worried that we were going to leave him on the ground and we’re going to give him everything we have. I mean, the shots have come in and the teammates are finding me. I wouldn’t say anything different.

“I love each of these guys. It’s amazing, man. Surrealist. Surrealist. Something you know growing up that you dream of. And doing it with such an amazing group of guys, such amazing staff, such amazing coaches, makes it so wonderful. It’s beautiful. It’s wonderful to share this moment with, you know, your brothers and just great, great people.

Neither of his brothers is an All-American. Few may be the future pros. But they all go to the Final Four. Like so many Bruins have done before them, with bigger names, more ability – but no greater desire to win.

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