Culver City Observer -

By Bill Seals
Sports Reporter 

UCLA Bruins dance into the Final four

 


When the UCLA Bruins hired Mick Cronin to be their next head coach, he understood what the expectations were. In his introductory press conference on April 9th of 2019, Cronin explained the importance of winning in Westwood. “It’s UCLA,” Cronin said. “I understand the expectations. And the sooner the better.”

He did indeed understand the importance of winning at UCLA. Less than two years later, Cronin accomplished his goal, leading the undermanned Bruins to their first Final Four since 2008, defeating the Michigan Wolverines 51-49 in the Eastern Regional Final of the men’s NCAA basketball tournament. The Bruins were led by Johnny Juzang with 28 points.

Although Cronin would be the first person to state that we do not hang banners in Pauley Pavilion for Final Four appearances and that our goal is winning a championship, just getting to the Final Four is a significant accomplishment, especially considering the obstacles thrown in the Bruins path to the Final Four.

This Bruin team lost their top recruit, Daishen Nix, a five-star point guard who decided to join the NBA G League, they lost Chris Smith, their 6-foot-9 senior guard and leading scorer from the 2019-2020 season to a season-ending knee injury (torn ACL, left knee). They lost their second leading scorer and leading rebounder from last season, 6-foot-10 forward Jalen Hill, who left the team for undisclosed personal reasons.

After losing their final four games, all after leading at halftime, the Bruins barely made it into the NCAA Tournament field of 68 as the No. 11 seed in the Eastern Regional and were placed in the play-in game against the Michgan State Spartans of the Big 10 Conference. The Bruins prevailed in overtime over the Spartans, 86-80, to move on to a first-round game against the No. 6 seeded BYU Cougars, which they won 73-62 and then they knocked off Abilene Christian University, 67-47, to advance to the Sweet 16.

The Sweet 16 matchup with the East region’s No. 2 seed, the Alabama Crimson Tide, was where most experts predicted that the enjoyable NCAA tourney run for the undersized and undermanned Bruins would end. The SEC Champion Crimson Tide were considered too deep and too athletic for the Bruins. Playing a stifling defense and with a balanced scoring attack, the Bruins again won in overtime, beating the Crimson Tide 88-78. Six UCLA players scored in double figures, led by Jaime Jaquez Jr. and Jules Bernard with 17 apiece.

The win advanced the Bruins to the Elite 8 and a matchup with the heavily favored Wolverines. The Wolverines struggled with the physical Bruin defense, scoring a season low of 49 points. The Bruins, who had displayed a balanced scoring attack against the Crimson Tide, also struggled offensively against the tenacious Wolverine defense.

The Bruins had only two players score in double figures against the Wolverines, Juzang with his 28 points and point guard Tyger Campbell with 11 points. With 5:23 remaining in the game and the score tied at 46 apiece, the Bruins defense clamped down on the Wolverine shooters, holding them scoreless from the field for the final 5:23.

The Wolverines were held to just three points in the final 5:23, all from the free throw line. Michigan missed their last eight shots, including four in the final 12 seconds. Franz Wagner, the Wolverines top player and a possible first round pick in the NBA draft, was held to four points, including a couple of misfired 3-pointers, the last one at the buzzer.

Juzang made 11 of 19 shots, 2 of 5 three-pointers and 4 of 5 free throws and was named the East Region Most Outstanding Player. The Bruins are 5-0 in the NCAA tournament, with Juzang averaging 21.6 points per game. Next up for the Bruins in the Final Four are the top ranked and undefeated Gonzaga Bulldogs. The Bulldogs (30-0) are attempting to become the first unbeaten team in college basketball since the 1976 Indiana Hoosiers, who were 32-0 that season.

Gonzaga reached the Final Four by crushing the USC Trojans, 85-66. The Bulldogs never trailed, jumping to an early 7-0 lead due to some sloppy play by the Trojans. In the prior two tournament victories over the Kansas Jayhawks and the Oregon Ducks, the Trojans shot 60% from the three-point line, they averaged 16 assists and four blocks.

Against Gonzaga, the Trojans shot 26.7 % on three-point shots, they had 9 assists and no blocked shots. They were outrebounded 41-29. The Trojans were 7th in blocked shots in the nation, averaging 5.2 per game. The presence of center Evan Mobley in the middle of the defense will typically force several missed shots in an average game. Gonzaga spread the Trojans out, moved the ball well, garnering 21 assists and drove to the basketball with impunity.

The Bruins have had an amazing run in the tournament, and after victories over Alabama and Michigan, have proven that they are among the best teams in the country. But Gonzaga presents a different challenge. As USC learned, you do not want to get behind early to the Bulldogs. They are too good to chase.

The Bruins have won by playing a tough, physical defense, and by controlling the pace of the game. Cronin, who has been the outstanding coach of the tournament, has been able to devise a defense that takes away the strength of an opposing offense. Against Gonzaga, with all the many ways they can beat you, it will be a challenge for Cronin to slow their offense down.

The Pac-12 has been the best conference in this year’s men basketball tournament NCAA tournament. It will also be the most lucrative in Pac-12 history. The Pac-12 earned five financial units for the five teams that made the tournament and have gone 14-4 in the tournament, earning an additional 14 units. This year’s units carry a $337,141 annual value, according to the NCAA. That number changes each year, typically increasing by about 3% annually.

With a total of 19 financial units, based on the $337,411 annual value of each unit, the Pac-12 has earned $6.4 million from this year’s tournament. Since units are paid out in annual distributions over a rolling six-year period, the Pac-12 will earn at least $38.4 million over a six-year period from this year’s performance. That is based on this year’s numbers and will increase by 3% annually.

With Oregon State’s loss to Houston in the Elite 8, UCLA will be the lone representative of the Pac-12 in the Final Four. Oregon State was eliminated by Houston, 67-61, in the Midwest regional. The winner of the Gonzaga-UCLA match will face the winner of the Baylor-Houston matchup in the championship game. Baylor won the South regional with a victory over Arkansas.

As Cronin said in his press conference after the Michigan win, “What you try to preach, when you're building a program, and you guys have heard me say this, first of all, April 9th, 2019, I told you, I spell fun w-i-n. 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.” The Bruins hope to have more fun against Gonzaga on Saturday.

 

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