In Down Year for Most CBB Blue Bloods, UCLA Now Eyeing Historic Tournament Run

Abbey MastraccoContributor IMarch 29, 2021

UCLA players celebrate after beating Alabama 88-78 in overtime of a Sweet 16 game in the NCAA men's college basketball tournament at Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, Sunday, March 28, 2021. (AP Photo/AJ Mast)
AJ Mast/Associated Press

It wasn't too long ago that UCLA was an elite men's college basketball program. When the Bruins fell out of that conversation about a decade ago, the school hired a coach from a different historically elite program, former Indiana star Steve Alford, to restore its glory.

But the balance of power has shifted in college basketball. Indiana fell out of favor years ago and so did the Bruins, with smaller schools from smaller conferences like Butler and Gonzaga overtaking them on the national scene. Never has that power balance been more evident than this year, when Duke and Kentucky failed to make the NCAA tournament, Kansas was bounced out of the second round, North Carolina in the first and Michigan State lost its First Four game.

It was the Bruins that knocked out the Spartans in the play-in round, claiming the No. 11 seed in the East Region and reclaiming their spot among college basketball's elites once again as they advanced to the Elite Eight for the first time since 2008 after a thrilling overtime victory against No. 2 Alabama on Sunday in Indianapolis. UCLA will now face No. 1 Michigan with a chance for the program to reach its 19th Final Four. 

The Bruins are playing with a confidence and a swagger that few expected with a second-year head coach at the helm. It was the win against Michigan State in the First Four that coach Mick Cronin called a "turning point." UCLA avenging a 75-62 loss to Michigan State in the Maui Invitational in 2019 to show just how far the program has come under Cronin. 

"Literally, they got embarrassed against Michigan State," Cronin said in his postgame Zoom press conference. "... It was bad. And the guys, for them to come that far to where they could beat a program like Michigan State, I think it just did wonders for their confidence."

The men's college basketball leaders in national championships got back on a winning track by hiring Cronin away from Cincinnati. He wasn't the first pick; that was Kentucky's John Calipari. Why shouldn't a blue blood like UCLA swing for the fences? He also wasn't the second choice. The Bruins swung and missed on TCU's Jamie Dixon. 

Cronin was also considered an impossible hire. He was Cincinnati through and through, having grown up in the city playing basketball for his father, Harold "Hep" Cronin, and going to the University of Cincinnati. 

He didn't want to uproot his daughter and he liked being near his father. 

Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

Coaching in the shadow of the greatest coach the game has ever seen is no easy feat. The legend of John Wooden looms large in Westwood, and not just because of the statue outside of Pauley Pavilion. But Mick was undaunted and his ex-wife was intrigued by Los Angeles, so they made the move to the West Coast. 

Mick was forced to break the news to Hep, who was a fixture around the Bearcats program, attending practices, workouts and games after he retired. But Hep encouraged Mick to take the job, telling him the blue bloods are the ones that win

Mick and Hep were reunited after a year apart—their hiatus forced by the COVID-19 pandemic—and the longer UCLA remains in the tournament, the more Mick gets to see Hep, even if it's from a distance. 

Mick's coaching might have been questioned in the beginning since he was considered a consolation hire, but he has more than proved his coaching chops. He came in and immediately changed the culture in his first year and beat Michigan State, BYU, Abilene Christian and Alabama in the NCAA tournament this year.

"When he came to UCLA, he basically preached the entire time that, no matter what was going to happen, we were going to be a tough team, and we were going to be a defensive team," sophomore guard/forward Jaime Jaquez Jr. said. "So that was kind of his whole attitude coming into UCLA is that, no matter what happens, we're going to be the toughest team to go out there and play."

There was one brief moment when his coaching was questioned once again. Up by three points against the Crimson Tide with four seconds left in regulation, the Bruins let Alabama's Alex Reese make an extra long three to tie the game instead of fouling him. He was concerned coach Nate Oats had seen him telling point guard Tyger Campbell to foul. 

"They knew, and when we went to foul him, he was going to shoot it," Mick said. "So obviously, the kids bailed me out. We played great in overtime."

Michael Conroy/Associated Press

The Bruins absorbed the gut punch and then punched right back. No one was questioning Mick's coaching or anything else by the time they completed their 88-78 win over a team that was a heavy favorite.

Mick reached his first Elite Eight by using a mix of Alford's recruits and his own. He also leaned heavily on some local players, bringing some Los Angeles pride to the west side. Campbell and big man Cody Riley had big performances on Sunday, but it was Jaquez, Johnny Juzang and Jules Bernard, the three Southern California players, that have been leading the way all season. 

Jaquez is from Camarillo, a suburb north of Los Angeles in Ventura County. Bernard went to Windward School, which isn't far from the UCLA campus, and Juzang transferred to UCLA from Kentucky to be closer to his home in the San Fernando Valley. 

They all scored double-digit points, but it was about more than scoring against a top team like Alabama and will be about much more than that moving forward in the tournament. 

"Scoring is not our problem. We've got plenty of guys that can put the ball in the basket," Mick said. "Can we stop Alabama, their speed, their quickness, their three-point shooting, and then keep them off the offensive glass?"

The Bruins limited the Crimson Tide to 25 percent from three-point range, they pulled down 15 offensive boards and they significantly slowed down a team that wanted to play with pace. 

This run might seem improbable to those outside of the program. USC was supposedly the better Los Angeles college team coming into the tournament and now the crosstown rivals are both headed to the Elite Eight, as is fellow Pac-12 member Oregon State. But the Bruins are confident that they have the right players, the coach and the right mindset to be able to return to the program to prominence. 

"We know it's coach's first Elite Eight, so we're really excited and happy for him," Jaquez said. "This is our whole team's first time going to the Elite Eight, but we're not finished yet. We're not finished. We've got a lot more work to do."