UCLA's Surprise Final Four Run Is Historic, but Now Comes the Juggernaut

David KenyonFeatured ColumnistMarch 31, 2021

UCLA guard Tyger Campbell, right, celebrates with teammate guard Jaime Jaquez Jr. (4) after an Elite 8 game against Michigan in the NCAA men's college basketball tournament at Lucas Oil Stadium, Wednesday, March 31, 2021, in Indianapolis. UCLA won 51-49. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)
Darron Cummings/Associated Press

No matter what happens from here, the 2020-21 UCLA Bruins have sealed their place in history.

The third-to-last team included in the 68-team field of the 2021 men's NCAA tournament, UCLA entered with low expectations. Considering the Bruins had dropped four straight games, it'd be improper to say that wasn't deserved, either.

Yet two weeks later, UCLA has become only the sixth double-digit seed to reach the Final Four since the men's tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985. The Bruins punched their ticket with a 51-49 win over the No. 1 seed Michigan Wolverines.

Even if this story has reached its peak, the team's legacy is secure. UCLA is making the program's 19th trip to the Final Fourthe second-most in men's basketball historyand first in 13 years.

But the Bruins still have "legendary" status in their sights.

Mick Cronin's team is a single victory from becoming the first double-digit seed to appear in the national championship. However, the obstacle—and opportunity—is a showdown with top-seeded, undefeated Gonzaga in the national semifinals.

From any perspective but program tradition, the Bruins are heavy underdogs.

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The Men's #FinalFour is set: 🏀 No. 2 Houston vs. No. 1 Baylor 🏀 No. 11 UCLA vs. No. 1 Gonzaga https://t.co/rdwGXbf7Vh

This year, UCLA never cracked the Top 20 of the AP poll. Gonzaga hasn't budged from its No. 1 preseason ranking. UCLA lost to USC twice; Gonzaga smoked the Trojans by 19 on Tuesday. Gonzaga opened as a 14-point favorite over UCLA, per DraftKings.

And that's simply the beginning.

Gonzagawhich has three AP All-Americans in Drew Timme, Corey Kispert and Jalen Suggsboasts the highest efficiency margin and third-best offense in the 20-season history of KenPom.com. UCLA, meanwhile, ranks 13th on offense and 45th on defense.

After dismantling USC, Gonzaga has notched 27 straight wins of 10-plus points and 29 double-digit margins in 30 games. While the popular retort of low competition level in Gonzaga's conference is fine, the rest of its schedule is impressive.

Gonzaga has beaten Kansas, West Virginia, Iowa, Virginia, Oklahoma, Creighton and USC—all NCAA tournament teams—on neutral courts by an average margin of 14.9 points. This team has faced plenty of challenges en route to 30-0.

Conversely, UCLA has survived two overtime games and Michigan's last-second miss in March Madness alone. While victories are the most important thing right now, that's a dangerous way to play.

History isn't on UCLA's side, either. The five previous double-digit seeds to reach the Final Four lost in the national semifinals, and they fell by an average margin of 12.6 points.

For logical reasons, the Bruins are not expected to winbut that's nothing new. Through five NCAA tournament games, they were only favored against Abilene Christian in the round of 32.

Most everyone reading this understands the challenge that Gonzaga poses. UCLA surely does, too.

But the Bruins keep figuring out ways to win.

Largely, that's a product of Johnny Juzang's outstanding run. After scoring 28 of UCLA's 51 points Tuesday, the Kentucky transfer has provided 21.6 points per game in March Madness. Juzang's ability to create his own shot saved the Bruins against Michigan and will be vital in the next contest.

UCLA's perimeter defense has improved substantially, too. Prior to the NCAA tournament, the Bruins ceded a lackluster 35.1 percent clip from three-point range. In the last five games, they've held opponents to a 23-of-93 markjust 24.7 percent.

While the combination of Juzang and perimeter defense alone isn't enough to take down Gonzaga, it gives UCLA a chance.

And at this point of the season, nothing else matters.

Save for their fans, few viewers will expect the Bruins to pull off a miracle in the Final Four. The truth is obvious.

But this showdown with Gonzaga has the potential to shift 2020-21 UCLA from a memorable story to the most accomplished Cinderella team in men's NCAA tournament history.


Statistics courtesy of KenPom.com or Sports-Reference.com, unless otherwise noted. Follow Bleacher Report writer David Kenyon on Twitter @Kenyon19_BR.