UCLA’s toughness and resolve will be tested on the ugly road to the Final Four
It’s glamorously named “The Road to the Final Four,” but the day UCLA got its coordinates, it was certainly struck by a grim realization.
They were not placed directly on a street. They were placed on a narrow, winding stretch of mud and rock. They were placed on a potholed path that appeared to lead straight into a ditch.
There’s Boise State. There’s Gonzaga. There’s – gasp – Kansas.
In the NCAA men’s basketball tournament pairings announced Sunday, the Bruins have been placed in the toughest region against some of the toughest teams and will be without possibly two of their toughest players.
In other words, they were placed right in Coach Mick Cronin’s wheelhouse.
This is going to be tough, it could get ugly, and he and his Bruins can’t wait.
“We’re trying to create a culture of no excuses,” Cronin told reporters Sunday afternoon. “I try to teach them that about their lives too. If you have the tenacity and willingness to put in the work, you can get where you want to go.”
Where they’re going suddenly seems a long way from here, with defensive leader Jaylen Clark seemingly out for the season with a lower leg injury and big man Adem Bona nursing a sore shoulder, but Cronin was unmoved.
“You know, there’s a way to win a game,” he said. “There’s always a way to win a game, whether Jaylen Clark is out, Adem is out, God forbid someone else is out. There is always a way to win a game. It might not be that easy, your margin of error might not be that great. But there’s still a way to win the game if you’re willing to work hard enough to do it. And these guys are there because they want to win. That’s what they’re about.”
Yes, following Sunday’s announcement, the Bruins can celebrate being No. 2 in the West Region. In fact, they can play the first two rounds in Sacramento, and if they’re still alive, they’d play the next two rounds in Las Vegas, and that’s all a wonderful thing.
But did you figure out who to play? Have you ever wondered how they will survive the combination of painful matchups and missing players?
UCLA seemingly walked the gauntlet two seasons ago, battling from the starting position of an 11th seed to the Final Four in a play-in game.
The truth is they need to do something like this again. Playing without Clark and with a disabled Bona, the Bruins must navigate this “path” with all the courage Cronin can muster.
Again, the Last Dance combo of Jaime Jaquez Jr. and Tyger Campbell and David Singleton can’t wait.
“I know the three of us have had a lot of conversations about this being our last year together and we’re just embracing it,” Jaquez told reporters. “This is one last chance to make a difference, we’ve got our backs to the wall right now, we feel like we’re taking it, we’re taking all that comes with it.”
First up is North Carolina Asheville, a 15th seed with a 140 NET ranking and yet a team that might at least scare. The Bulldogs have won 18 of their last 19 games and can capitalize on Bona’s limitations with one of the nation’s best big men, Drew Pember, a 6-foot-10 senior who averages 21 points and nine rebounds a game.
“We know you can’t take anything for granted,” Singleton said. “We have to give 100% in every game of this tournament, starting with UNC Asheville.”
Next here is Boise State beating Northwestern to give the Bruins their 29th NET ranking with wins over Texas A&M, Washington State and Colorado. The Broncos are also led by the Art senior-guard combination, which wins in March with Marcus Shaver Jr. and Max Rice.
“We need to make sure that… our gas tank is ready,” Cronin said.
The Bruins can and should survive those first two games, but it could be dangerous and their reward could be downright draining. An old nemesis and defending champion could be waiting for them in Las Vegas.
Do you really want to play Gonzaga again? Especially now? The Bulldogs are a NET ranked sixth and their only three losses since late November have been by a point or in overtime. They are led by 6-10 forward Drew Timme, who appears to have been in college for ten years.
This is the year that, for once, no one really paid attention to Gonzaga. It would turn out that this could be the year the Bulldogs finally win a national championship.
You know who else could win a national title and become only the third repeat champion in 50 years? Kansas is back and despite being blown out in the Big 12 tournament championship game against Texas with his coach Bill Self in the hospital, it’s still Kansas.
The Jayhawks played the toughest schedule in the country, leading the country with 17 Quad 1 wins and are backed by veteran Jalen Wilson and Dajuan Harris Jr.
Last but not least, when the Bruins reach the glittering region of Las Vegas, they can draw on their sweat-soaked experiences there in this weekend’s Pac-12 tournament.
They came from within a missed free throw and missed a wide-open three-point try after beating No. 8 Arizona in Saturday night’s championship game despite having four key players on the bench. Not only did they miss Clark and Bona, but their other two big men, Mac Etienne and Kenneth Nwuba, both of whom were fouled.
The relentless quartet of Jaquez Jr., Campbell, Singleton and newcomer Amari Bailey almost single-handedly beat the massive and talented Wildcats. Surviving the next three weeks will take all of that effort and more.
“We have to have short memories, get better, figure out things that we need to do, watch the movie and go from there,” Jaquez said.
Another Los Angeles team will join them in the madness, namely USC. Despite their listless loss to Arizona State in the Pac-12 tournament, the Trojans entered the tournament as the No. 10 East, but are not expected to last long.
If they can beat tournament guru Tom Izzo and Michigan State in the first round – a possibility if Drew Peterson’s back loosens – they will have to face the mighty No. 2 seed Marquette, a team many have picked to take title weekend to reach.
For both locals, The Road To The Final Four was meant to be nothing short of a twisting, frenetic adventure.
This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.
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