UCLA basketball faces new challenge after Final Four

LOS ANGELES — Just over three minutes into the second half of a top-10 showdown with Arizona on Tuesday night, UCLA’s Jaime Jaquez Jr. got a little laid back and lost the basketball nearly from the middle of the field. He was then pushed into the backcourt for the ball which resulted in a turnover.

Bruins coach Mick Cronin doesn’t play casual. He immediately turned to his bench and motioned for Jules Bernard to head to the scorer’s table to replace Jaquez.

To be honest, Jaquez doesn’t really do casual either. It was an unusual game from a three-year-old starter whose effort level typically skews toward the extreme. But with Cronin, usually playing rough is not acceptable when always playing hard is the norm.

“We’re going to win or die trying,” Cronin said. “UCLA is the biggest four letters in the sport, and we want players to use the brand. But there will be no renting of the four letters. Whereas here we play to win, and there is no no concessions on that. That will be all that matters when you put on the jersey.

Tyger Campbell (left) and Johnny Juzang.

After two and a half minutes on the bench, Jaquez returned to the line-up personifying his coach’s credo: win or die. The 6’7″ wing dominated the next 12 minutes – scoring eight straight UCLA points in a single stretch, grabbing rebounds, blocking three shots, dispensing two assists and stealing one. Jaquez ended up playing a team-best 34 minutes in 75-59 strikeout from the No. 3 team in the AP Poll, making him a potential first-round NBA draft pick.

“Effort matters,” says Cronin.

The Bruins (14-2) are an anomaly in a transitional sport – stable, old, coachable, committed. They’re built around a core group of guys from Greater Los Angeles (Jaquez, Bernard, Cody Riley, David Singleton) and a point guard from Iowa (Tyger Campbell) who’ve been in one place for years. They were recruited by previous manager Steve Alford and may have dispersed when he was fired. Cronin arrived from Cincinnati in 2019 with an unrelenting intensity that his new players should match.

“They stayed and they let me coach them,” he says.

The remaining group was joined by a few transfers returning home (Johnny Juzang from Kentucky and Myles Johnson from Rutgers), a sophomore from Riverside (Jaylen Clark), and a freshman from Long Beach (Peyton Watson). There are local high school teams that are less authentically Angeleno than the Bruins.

But these guys aren’t SoCal softies; their determined run within half a court of last year’s national championship game showcased fierce and competitive driving. That team was one of five No. 11 seeds in the NCAA Tournament to make it to the Men’s Final Four, and only an epic buzzer bomb from Jalen Suggs kept them from becoming the first to play in the game for the title.

“When we were in the bubble [in Indianapolis], I got to the point where I thought we were going to win the national championship,” Cronin said. “Because these guys won’t give up.”

This emotional race marked the end of an extremely rare phenomenon: UCLA as an underdog. It was fun while it lasted in 2021, but the program that won more men’s national championships than any other, the bluest of bluebloods, was back. And when Juzang turned down the NBA last summer to stay in school with the rest of the core group, exorbitant alumni expectations also returned.

So began a new challenge: to stay engaged and excited at every step of the march to mars. This included momentum-killing COVID-19 issues that led to five games being postponed or canceled and left the Pauley Pavilion bereft of fans for weeks. At the end of the day, there is an innate knowledge of the final stage of the season: if a team knows that they can progress from the First Four to the Final Four, how important is the ranking?

Cronin’s job is to chase locker room complacency while still aiming for maximum playoff cadence. A lifelong horse racing enthusiast, he recently purchased a thoroughbred and named it Bruin Magic. Cronin sees his basketball team like a coach sees a talented young colt he’s trying to guide to his peak at the Kentucky Derby.

“I know they have other equipment,” he said. “They haven’t given it to me yet.”

UCLA's Johnny Juzang pumps his first

Juzang leads the Bruins in scoring with 18.1 points per game.

The satisfaction that came from beating Arizona on Tuesday was two-fold: it was a big win in Pac-12 play, tying the Bruins for the conference lead; and it came against a team with a higher ranking and a lot of buzz. The Wildcats entered the game 16-1 and finished first or second nationally in several major analytical rankings. Under first-year coach Tommy Lloyd, they played fast and fun basketball, beating Michigan and Illinois on the road and were considered the nation’s biggest revelation after starting the unranked season.

This allowed the Bruins to dust off the old chips and put them back on their shoulders. They could become the hunter again. “We love being the underdog,” Jaquez says, and his smile is a hint that he knows that role is stepping back in time.

Outdoor campus signs provide the “No Underdog” context. From the 11 national championship banners in a modernized Pauley Pavilion to the photos of UCLA’s 41 first-round picks on the walls of the nearby Mo Ostin Basketball Center, it’s not Butler or Loyola Chicago. They practice on Russell Westbrook Court, bolstering UCLA’s selling point as a route to the pros.

The day after beating Arizona by 16 – the Bruins’ biggest margin of victory against a top-five opponent since 1980 – Cronin settles into a chair in the practice gym with a tired but satisfied look on his face. It’s been a busy week, with Arizona’s rescheduled game stalled ahead of visits to California on Thursday and Stanford on Saturday. For that reason, the gym is quiet all day — there will be a Golden Bears film study on Wednesday night, but no on-field practice.

Cronin knows not to push too hard right now, especially after getting the effort he did against the Wildcats. He kept coming back to the same word to describe him. “It was by far the most animated 40 minutes of the year,” he said, and he knew he would get it. It was a big game and he has a full roster.

It’s a rare luxury of a college basketball coach: such familiarity with his players that he can rely on them, and they know what to expect of him. Most of them are in their third year with Cronin, reliable performers who are especially driven when the stakes rise.

The night before, Campbell helped Kerr Kriisa, Arizona’s flashy sophomore point guard, into a 0-for-12 shooting nightmare. On the other end, Campbell coolly ran the show as usual, recording his fourth straight game against the Wildcats without a turnover. A career 26% three-point shooter heading into this season, Campbell has upped that number to 44% this year. “He’s hugely underrated nationally,” Cronin says. “He is the heart of our team.

Watson has shown his five-star talent on several occasions, the lights are starting to come on for a 19-year-old Cronin who can afford to gradually bring. The highlight was a ruthless spike from a shot by Arizona guard Justin Kier and a hard look afterward, showing the kind of edge Cronin has always valued in his players. “He can impact the game,” Cronin says. “We try to win games and give him minutes. I have to keep it in mind in terms of, what do I want my team to look like in March?

Bernard, Riley and Singleton, the three who have been around the longest, made their veteran presence felt against Arizona. Bernard tied Juzang for team honors with 15, shooting 7 of 11 and had a team-high seven rebounds. Riley, who was injured in the season opener and didn’t play again until January, outplayed Arizona’s big post players for inside baskets and came out for jumpers, scoring a dozen. Singleton, a glue guy on the bench, netted the game’s biggest shot – a corner three that pushed the lead into double digits for good with seven minutes left, after it was reduced to eight .

Jaquez had his 12-minute push for dominance, but there was more to his night than that. He is never far from the action and never afraid of the moment. If any player epitomizes the tenacity that Cronin championed, it’s him. “He just has ‘winner’ written all over him,” Cronin said.

And then there was Juzang, the star who is so comfortable fitting in, ranked as a standstill shooter in Kentucky, but now so much more. He was the picture of mellow contentment after a night where he made just six of 18 snaps.

Juzang has been brilliant in the NCAA run, averaging 22.8 points and a string of shots that seemed to get harder as the games got bigger, sparking speculation he was leaving for the NBA. But with no certainty that he would be drafted into a lineup that would produce a guaranteed contract, he stayed in school.

The junior was the focus of Pauley’s party long after the game was over and most of the fans had cleared out. It was the first time the Bruins had played in front of a home crowd since early December after COVID-19 protocols shut down attendance, and they were happy to linger in the afterglow.

A few dozen family members and friends of the players stayed, and Juzang got around easily, from signing autographs and taking photos to wrapping an arm around his mother. (A child wearing a UCLA No. 33 jersey that had “Abdul-Jabbar” written on the back got a photo, but a demerit for historical accuracy, since Lew Alcindor was the name of center when he played for the Bruins .) The other players had changed into street clothes, but Juzang was still wearing his No. 23 white jersey, shorts and sneakers when security finally asked everyone to clear the arena.

“These great moments are a reason we all live for,” Juzang says.

More big moments await the Bruins, including a return date with Arizona next week in Tucson. Mick Cronin’s task is to keep a team with extensive March experience locked in until then, and then race to snag another banner for the program that has the most. They rise towards that goal, ready to win or die trying.

More college basketball coverage:

• What now for Louisville after Chris Mack?
The drive that feeds Johnny Davis, Breakout Star
SI’s Last Projected NCAA Tournament Ground

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