There is no Walton or Jabbar or Marques Johnson this time. There is not even a Chris Smith, Jalen Hill or Daishen Nix. UCLA does not have the players it used to have, nor the players it is supposed to have, and still it has wound up in the place to which it once owned exclusive rights: the NCAA Final Four.
UCLA owns 19 Final Four appearances in its glorious basketball history, and nearly all of them were led by some extraordinary combination of elite talent. There were Hall of Famers, All-Americans, 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 year as coach, short three regular players he was expecting to fill essential 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, ever did: made an improbable Final Four run. The Bruins lost the last four games of their regular season and squeezed into the March Madness. And now they’ve become only the second First Four team to reach the Final Four, joining 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 freshman regulars, which affected their success, but they also featured seven future NBA players.
“When you try to preach, when you’re building a program — and you guys have heard me say this, first of all on April 9, 2019, I told you — I spell fun W-I-M,” Cronin told reporters postgame. “Our scoring has been elite, 11th or 12th on offense, but tonight it was our defense. You have to find a way to win. And these guys are having the most fun they ever had in their life back in that locker room. Because they won.”
In the space of three days, UCLA took out the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds in the East Region, Michigan the regular-season champion of the Big Ten Conference and Alabama the regular season and tournament champion in the SEC.
In both cases, the Bruins advanced by reaching a level of defensive commitment that had been beyond them for so much of this year. They are an elite jump-shooting team, and they do not turn over the ball, but they do not excel at generating high-percentage shots. They were unlikely to outscore either the Wolverines or Crimson Tide, so they worked to limit possessions and to make every cut — every action — Michigan attempted as uncomfortable as possible.
“We won it on the defensive end,” Cronin said. “We didn’t foul. We didn’t give up a layup. We forced shots over us down the stretch and that was the whole key. We forced shots over us.”
Michigan had every chance to take down the Bruins, just like Alabama did before, and just like Michigan State did all the way back in the First Four. None of those three succeeded. UCLA reached the Final Four scoring, on average, 66.6 points in regulation. The deeper the Bruins advanced, the uglier they needed the game to be. This was accomplished, in part, by patience with the ball to consume as much of the shot clock as possible and still conjure a worthy shot attempt. It was, more so, the product of extraordinary defensive efforts.
Michigan, which owns the nation’s No. 9 offense, was held to a measly .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 assumed so much of the offensive responsibility Isaiah Livers handled before getting injured, were smothered 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 every one of those shots would have put them into the lead. They did not make a basket in the final 5 minutes. They committed 14 turnovers, nearly one for every four possessions they had during the game.
“It’s very disappointing for our guys, working extremely hard this year, coming down to one possession,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard told reporters. “And that’s how it goes sometimes. In the game of basketball, there’s one or two possessions that can really either help you or hurt you, and for us, we came up short.”
UCLA entered the season without Nix, the five-star recruit who committed to the Bruins last year but chose to join the NBA’s G League pathway program. Smith tore his ACL in a victory over Utah on New Year’s Eve. Hill chose to leave the program in February for personal reasons.
Cronin placed more offensive responsibility on Kentucky transfer Johnny Juzang, encouraging him to be more a scorer than a shooter. As a five-star prospect in high school, Juzang was expected to be elite from long distance. He is shooting 34.5 percent. But Cronin and his staff convinced Juzang he had other means of ringing up 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 like another game. We’ve been super locked in to this tournament,” Juzang said. “You don’t want to — as a player, you don’t like to add pressure to yourself. I know the whole team was just worried about we’re going to leave it out there on the floor and we’re going to give it everything we’ve got. I mean, the shots just happened to go in and teammates are finding me. I wouldn’t say anything different.
“I love every single one of these guys. It’s incredible, man. Surreal. Surreal. Something, you know, growing up, you just dream about. And to do it with such an amazing group of guys, such incredible staff, such incredible coaches, makes it just so wonderful. It’s beautiful. It’s beautiful sharing this moment with, you know, your brothers and just great, great people.”
None of his brothers is an All-American. Few may be future pros. But they all are going to the Final Four. As so many Bruins did before them, with bigger names, more ability — but no greater desire to win.