First to Final: UCLA faces Gonzaga as underdogs, a familiar spot in tournament run

Head coach Mick Cronin of the UCLA Bruins cuts the net after defeating the Michigan Wolverines 51-49 in the Elite Eight round game of the 2021 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament on March 30. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

LOS ANGELES – The UCLA men’s basketball team doesn’t fit the usual glitz and glam associated with Los Angeles and the star-studded history of the program. The No. 11-seeded Bruins have made their way from the First Four to the Final Four by being the exact opposite – grinding out their opponents and winning at all costs.

Doug Haller, ASU beat writer for the Athletic, said he never envisioned the Bruins getting to his point – but few writers did.

“They don’t beat themselves very much. You know they have a system, they play in it. They were far from the most talented team in the Pac 12,” he said. “But, you know, they’re always just a tough out for how hard they play, and then Mick Cronin’s principles of rebounding and defense.”

The Bruins improbable run will continue Saturday night as they square off with No. 1 seed in the tournament, undefeated Gonzaga, for a right to advance to the national championship.

After the Bruins’ latest victory in its improbable run, a 51-49 upset of No. 1 seed Michigan in the Elite Eight, UCLA head coach Mick Cronin highlighted his team’s penchant for winning ugly.

“To find a way to beat them with defense the way we did tonight, obviously I’m extremely proud of our team. It was just resilience,” Cronin said. “Stats are for losers; you either win or you lose. I think that stat sheet can get crumbled up tonight.”

The ability to win games in different ways is something Cronin has preached since his arrival in spring 2019 from his alma mater, the University of Cincinnati, where Cronin was head coach for 13 seasons.

“I told them I was going to teach them how to win,” Cronin recalled. “And you have to be able to win different ways, when things are not going well on the offense. April 9th, 2019, I told you, I spell fun W-I-N.”

Kentucky transfer Johnny Juzang scored 28 of the team’s 51 points against Michigan, and he credited Cronin’s mentality as a big reason he transferred to UCLA.

“I knew that he would push me and hold me accountable and challenge me,” Juzang said. “So you know, I want to be part of a winning program with, you know, winning standards, and, you know, a level of accountability to win games.”

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Despite an uneven season, which saw the Bruins lose the last four games of the Pac-12 season, the team has remained unified throughout, something Juzang credits for the tournament run.

“We’ve had our ups and downs during the season, but it’s such a beautiful thing, you know, the way that we have come together for this postseason,” he said. “We got some lionhearted guys on this team. We got some warriors, man. It kind of… checks everybody because the guy to your right is putting his heart on the floor and the guy to your left is putting his heart on the floor.”

The last time the two schools matched up in the NCAA tournament was in the Sweet Sixteen in 2006, when UCLA came back from a 17-point deficit for a memorable win.

The Bruins are 14 point underdogs to Gonzaga, but the team has been the underdog in all but one of their five tournament victories.

UCLA has won 11 national championships dating to 1964, and such world-class players as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar have worn the blue and gold. However Cronin spells fun, when it comes to wins, the legacy of John Wooden looms large. Wooden – the Wizard of Westwood – led the Bruins to 10 titles in 12 seasons from 1964 to 1975.

This year the Bruins will be making their 19th appearance in the Final Four, a legacy that Cronin hopes the team will continue to uphold on Saturday and going forward.

“Tomorrow is never promised. This is great, but we’ve got work to do,” he said. “And, you know, hopefully I’ll be around to keep trying to chase the tradition and the expectations at UCLA.”

Leo Tochterman Lee-oh Tock-tur-min
Sports Reporter, Los Angeles

Leo Tochterman expects to graduate in December of 2021 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism. He is working as a digital reporter for Cronkite News in Los Angeles and has interned at The Arizona Republic, KTAR, and KCRA 3 in California.