Injuries, opt-outs and underdogs: UCLA’s ride to Final Four

INDIANAPOLIS — As he basked in the glow of a win over Michigan, UCLA coach Mick Cronin was asked whether he thought he had the kind of team in his second season in Westwood to make a Final Four run.

Cronin thought for a moment about five-star prospect Daishen Nix, who reneged on his commitment to the Bruins for the G League. Then he thought about the season-ending knee injury to Chris Smith, his top returning player, and backup forward Jalen Hill’s departure midway through the season for personal reasons.

With those three? Maybe. Without them?

“Hell no,” Cronin said.

Yet here they are. One of college basketball’s traditional powers, relegated to underdog status throughout the tournament, marching through heavyweights (Michigan State), upstarts (Abilene Christian and BYU), the flavor of the day (Alabama) and the team everyone had pegged as a championship contender since January (Michigan).

Two of the wins in overtime. Two more white-knucklers. Only one in which the Bruins were given a chance.

Next up is the overall No. 1 seed Gonzaga on Saturday night in the program’s 19th trip to the national semifinals.

“If I had told you guys last May when we were all in lockdown,” Cronin said, “you guys would have said, ‘You’re not going to make the NCAA Tournament.’ Nobody would have said, ‘You’re going to the Final Four.’ Let’s be honest. Now, quietly, when we had those three guys — quietly, I told my dad, ‘I’ve got a chance to have my best team ever.'”

It still might be his best team ever. It’s certainly his most underappreciated and overachieving.

Johnny Juzang has gone from key role player to the breakout star of March Madness, his latest turn a virtuoso 28-point performance in a harrowing 51-49 victory over the top-seeded Wolverines in the regional finals Tuesday night. He became the first player since Oscar Robertson in 1960 to score more than half his team’s points in an Elite Eight win.

Jaime Jaquez Jr. was there to bail out the Bruins in a First Four game against Michigan State, when they trailed by 11 at the half. Now, they’re the second team to advance from that play-in round to the Final Four after VCU a decade ago.

Then there’s Tyger Campbell, the mop-haired guard who can somehow get a shot over anyone. Cody Riley, the undersized post whose penchant for fouls is balanced only by his affinity for big buckets. Jules Bernard, whose streaky good 3-point shooting helped the Bruins handle the second-seeded Crimson Tide.

It’s a piecemeal collection of talent. And so far, it can’t be beat.

“We’ve had our ups and downs during the season,” Juzang said, “but it’s such a beautiful thing, you know? The way we have come together for this postseason? It’s just a feeling of everybody’s just so unified. It’s like one, just, unit, and we’re just all sharing in each other and rooting for each other. I mean, I think that’s why we’re at this point.”

There’s been plenty of moments that could have shattered them.

The first came almost a year ago, when Nix — the nation’s top prep point guard and a cornerstone of Cronin’s recruiting class — decided to play in the NBA’s developmental league. Cronin was still blasting the G League for openly recruiting Nix even as the Bruins prepared to play Michigan in his first Elite Eight.

After weathering the early months of college basketball in a pandemic, the second big blow to the Bruins came in January, when Smith tore his ACL in a game against Colorado. The loss of their lone senior came just weeks before the third big blow, when Hill’s abrupt departure left UCLA perilously short-handed in the post.

Injuries haven’t stopped, either. Juzang twisted his ankle in the second half against Michigan, limping to the bench to get it re-taped before finishing the game. Bernard spent the entire 40 minutes limping up and down the court.

“You know,” Cronin said, “there’s not much that hasn’t happened to us this year as far as losing guys and injuries.”

That’s a big reason why they’ve been longshots ever since stepping on the floor against Michigan State at Mackey Arena in West Lafayette, and everywhere else in Indiana this month: the basketball cathedral of Hinkle Fieldhouse, the swanky digs of the Pacers’ Bankers Life Fieldhouse and the cavernous half-stadium setup inside Lucas Oil Stadium.

They’ll be underdogs again when they they return there to face the Bulldogs on Saturday night.

Since the NCAA began seeding teams in 1979, only five No. 11s have made it to the tournament’s final weekend. None have made it to the final night. Eighth-seeded Villanova in 1985 is the lowest seed ever to walk away with the title.

The Bruins have made plenty of history already in Indianapolis.

Who’s to say they can’t make a little bit more?

“I don’t want to say we’re invincible. Everyone is beatable. Everyone has good nights and bad nights,” Jaquez said. “We’re definitely a confident team. We definitely believe in ourselves, even when no one else was or did. So we just believe in each other every single day and knew, if we got this opportunity, we were going to take full advantage.”

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