This time there is no Walton, Jabbar or Marques Johnson. There’s not even Chris Smith, Jalen Hill or Daishen Nix. UCLA doesn’t have the players it once had, nor the players it should have, and it still ended up in a place where it once had exclusive rights: the NCAA Final Four.
UCLA has 19 Final Four appearances in its glorious basketball history, and almost all of them have been led by some remarkable combination of elite talent. There were the Hall of Famers, All-American, the future NBA All-Stars. When UCLA gets this far into the tournament, it’s because the Bruins were better.
So, what exactly just happened?
In just his second coaching year, the short three regular players he expected to fulfill key roles, Mick Cronin put himself in the same category as Ben Howland, Jim Harrick, Larry Brown, John Wooden. And in a way, he did something that maybe only Brown, maybe ever did: made an incredible series of Final Fours. The Bruins have lost their last four games of the regular season and have plunged into March madness. And now they have become only the second First Four team to reach the Final Four, joining the 2011 VCU.
Brown’s 1980 team was the closest to UCLA’s surprise. Those Bruins finished 17-9 and fourth in the Pac-10. They had three regular champions, which affected their success, but they also had seven future NBA players.
“When you’re trying to preach, while you’re building a program – and you heard me say this, first of all on April 9, 2019, I told you – I’m writing a fun WIM,” Cronin told reporters in the achievement. “Our points were elite, 11th or 12th in attack, but tonight it was our defense. You have to find a way to win. And these guys have the most fun in life in that locker room. Because they won. “
In the space of three days, UCLA took 1st and 2nd place in the Eastern Region, Michigan the regular season champion of the Big Ten conference, and Alabama the regular champion and tournament champion in the SEC.
In both cases, the Bruins have progressed by reaching a level of defensive commitment that has been beyond them for so long this year. They are an elite team for shooting jumps and do not roll the ball, but they do not excel in generating high percentage shots. They weren’t likely to outdo either Wolverine or Crimson Tide, so they worked to limit possession and on every cut – every action – Michigan tried to be as uncomfortable as possible.
“We won in the defensive end,” Cronin said. “We did not foul. We didn’t give up on setting up. We shot through us down the move and that was the whole key. We fired shots at us. ”
Michigan had every chance to bring down the Bruins, just as Alabama had done before, and just like Michigan State until it returned to the First Four. Neither of those three succeeded. UCLA scored the Final Four averaging 66.6 points in regulation. The deeper the Bruins progressed, the uglier the game was supposed to be. This was partly achieved by patience with the ball to spend as many hours as possible for a shot and still conjure up a valuable shot attempt. It was, moreover, the fruit of extraordinary defensive efforts.
Michigan, which is the owner of national offense no. 9, was held at a low 0.83 points per possession. All-American Hunter Dickinson is the only Michigan player to score double-digit points with 11 points. Wings Franz Wagner and Chaundee Brown, who took on so much offensive responsibility that Isaiah Livers dealt with before he was injured, were suffocated by Jaime Jaquez and Jules Bernard. UCLA defenders sat on Wagner’s right arm and tried to force him in the opposite direction. They tried to force Brown to move away from the 3-point line. The two wings of UM scored a combined 12 points.
The Wolverines missed four shots from an empty ball and three open three-pointers in the final 3 minutes, each of which would have put them in the lead. They haven’t made a basket in the last 5 minutes. They committed 14 turnovers, almost one on every four possessions they had during the game.
“It’s very disappointing for our guys, who have worked extremely hard this year and come up with one estate,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard told reporters. “It simply came to our notice then. In a basketball game, there are one or two possessions that can really help or hurt you, and we’ve come up with a brief result. “
UCLA entered the season without Nix, a five-star recruit who committed to the Bruins last year but chose to join the NBA G League program. Smith tore his ACL in a win over Utah on New Year’s Eve. Hill left the program in February for personal reasons.
Cronin took offensive responsibility on Kentucky transfer Johnny Juzang, encouraging him to be more of a scorer than a scorer. As a five-star high school prospect, Yuzang was expected to be an elite from a great distance. It shoots 34.5 percent. But Cronin and his staff convinced Yuzang that he had other means of answering large numbers. He averaged 21.6 points in the NCAA tournament, including 28 of Bruins ’51 points against Michigan.
“I just approached it as the second game. We are super locked in this tournament, ”said Yuzang. “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 about whether we would leave him there on the floor and give him everything we had. I mean, the shots came in by accident and my teammates find me. I wouldn’t say anything different.
“I love each of these guys. It’s amazing, man. Surreal. Surreal. Something, you know, growing up, that you only dream about. And doing it with such an amazing group of guys, amazing staff, amazing coaches, makes it so wonderful. That’s beautiful. It’s wonderful to share this moment with, you know, your brothers and just great, great people. “
None of his brothers are all-American. There are few who will be professionals in the future. But everyone goes to the Final Four. Like many Bruins before them, with bigger names, more abilities – but no greater desire to win.