NCAA Tournament 2021: UCLA’s memorable Final Four run shows Bruins are on the right track under Mick Cronin

When UCLA fired Steve Alford midway through the 2018-19 season, missed the NCAA Tournament and then stumbled through a coaching search that saw a handful of high-profile candidates shy away from the gig, the Bruins could have disintegrated into a roster management disaster.Instead, four players who were freshmen role players during that lost season stayed through the mess to play vital roles during one of the most improbable Final Four runs in NCAA Tournament history. The Bruins were just the second team to ever reach the Final Four after playing in the First Four, and, though they lost 93-90 in overtime to No. 1 seed Gonzaga on Saturday, their run is a testament to a stay-the-course approach that is becoming arcane in the era of mass transfers.”What I realized walking off the court was just how incredible this group was and just the brotherhood and camaraderie and cohesion,” said Johnny Juzang, the lone transfer among the nine Bruins who saw action Saturday. “Just everything about this group, man, the heart. That’s really it. The heart of this group, man.”Rather than bolting for greener pastures when the coach they signed to play for was fired halfway through their first college season, Tyger Campbell, Jules Bernard, David Singleton and Kenneth Nwuba stayed at UCLA.So did Jaime Jaquez Jr. and Jake Kyman, who signed on Nov. 14, 2018, six weeks before Steve Alford was fired. Instead of seeking a release from their letters of intent following Alford’s dismissal, both honored their commitments to the Bruins and joined forces with the four remaining players in the class ahead to form the nucleus which keyed this year’s memorable run. Cody Riley, a senior on this year’s squad, stayed as well.Chris Smith, a senior on this season’s team, was in the same boat. He could have started his professional career or entertained a transfer option after leading the Bruins in scoring last season. Instead, he returned. Although his season was cut short after just eight games due to injury, his return — and decision to remain around the team after the injury — also speaks to the collective commitment of a group of players who had every reason to give in to a modern college basketball culture that seemingly demands the pursuit of instant gratification.Losing Smith to injury and redshirt junior big man Jalen Hill to personal reasons midway through the season offered UCLA an out to finally throw in the towel. Five-star signee Daishen Nix had opted to join the G League Ignite before the season, and with the program’s depth teetering, the Bruins could have folded.Four straight losses entering the NCAA Tournament suggested they might be headed for a quick demise. So did a 14-point deficit against Michigan State in the First Four. But then the Bruins began showing the character they’ve been collectively building since before Cronin’s arrival. Instead of folding under pressure, they rose to meet each big moment the NCAA Tournament brought their way.”There was nothing that was going to stop us from fighting,” Juzang said. “I mean, literally to the last play and every single game to the last play, we were going to go out swinging. So we battled and left everything we had out there.”The character UCLA showed in coming back to beat Michigan State was the same character it showed while sticking together during a tumultuous coaching change. The fight it showed in outlasting No. 2 seed Alabama during an overtime battle in the Sweet 16 was the same fight it showed while battling back from a disastrous start to Cronin’s first season to finish second in the Pac-12.The grit it displayed in a grimy 51-49 victory over No. 1 seed Michigan in the Elite Eight was the same resolve it showed in battling through the unexpected losses of Nix, Smith and Hill this season, not to mention injuries to Juzang and Riley during the season.And, even in defeat, Saturday’s loss to Gonzaga was emblematic of it all. UCLA, which finished the season at 22-10, could have bottomed out after hearing “no” from a few coaches before Cronin left Cincinnati for the job. But the Bruins never took no for an answer. They reached the Final Four and only left after an all-time great shot from Jalen Suggs in overtime.”These guys, they deserved a better ending,” Cronin said. “But like I told them, as Coach (John) Wooden would say, ‘true greatness is giving your best effort.’ And that’s what they did.”Even if the Bruins continue to do give their best effort — and nothing about the past two years suggests they won’t — it will be different. This squad will no longer be a gritty underdog moving forward, especially not if Juzang spurns the newfound attention of NBA scouts and returns for a second season with the program.With a pair of top-50 recruits in Peyton Watson and Will McClendon also signed to come, UCLA appears poised to reassume its historical status as a national power. What will that mean for the deep group of sophomores and juniors on this year’s squad?Modern norms suggest the transfer portal might be due for an influx of Bruins, and roster management realities may necessitate some departures. However, the last two years, capped by a magical postseason run this season, suggest there will be a returning nucleus forged by adversity that will return to fight through whatever lies ahead.”Everybody is so proud to play with each other and to play for these coaches,” Juzang said. “And there’s no other way we’d rather go out. We went out fighting. There’s no better way.”

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