LOS ANGELES — Cedric the Entertainer was courtside, Jessica Alba and Dave Roberts both made the trip to Pauley Pavilion and former UCLA great Bill Walton was in the crowd. Michael Buffer even walked to midcourt and delivered his famous line, “Let’s get ready to rumble.”
This was an opportunity for this Bruins team to make a statement that last year’s magical First Four to Final Four run was no fluke.
And they did just that.
I had concerns. Not necessarily whether this was the same team that finished fourth in the Pac-12 in the regular season and scraped its way into the NCAA tourney as an 11 seed, but whether this was the same team that reeled off five wins last March to earn the program’s first Final Four appearance since 2008.
Sure, it was the first week of the regular season. These games aren’t exactly held in high regard later in the season, but this was important for a team that lost three straight to conclude the regular season a year ago and lost in the first game of the Pac-12 tourney to USC.
This meant something because the college basketball world was watching — at least those who hadn’t fallen asleep by the late tip time of 11:30 p.m. back east. UCLA wasn’t able to sneak up on anyone as was the case last March in Indianapolis.
This was a top-five matchup with an atmosphere last seen at Pauley when Lonzo Ball was throwing the ball all over the court.
No. 2 UCLA vs. No. 4 Villanova.
“This was a heavyweight matchup,” UCLA’s Johnny Juzang said after the win.
Juzang came out looking more like regular-season Johnny than Tourney Johnny, going 1-for-8 from the field and misfiring on his first four 3-point attempts. Juzang averaged 22.8 points in six tourney contests, a far cry from the 16.0 points he averaged in the regular season. But Juzang’s swagger never wavered and he wound up making 7 of his next 8 shots from the field.
Jaime Jaquez did what he did last March, he made big shots and showcased his versatility, finishing with 21 points, five rebounds and three assists. But it may have been point guard Tyger Campbell who made the two most important shots, a pair of 3s after Villanova increased its lead to 10 midway through the second half.
But this game looked like it was over in regulation when Villanova had the ball and a four-point lead with 1:20 remaining. This was a program that is known for winning close games, a team with a pair of fifth-year seniors in Collin Gillespie and Jermaine Samuels that have won a ton of games in their careers and have a national title on their resume.
But UCLA was able to cut it to 67-65 on a pair of Juzang free throws and then sent the game into overtime on a bank shot in the lane from Jules Bernard. In the extra period, it was all Bruins as they wound up with a 86-77 victory.
Cronin’s team beat the ultimate in culture, a Jay Wright-led Villanova program that has won two of the last five national championships.
It was a statement victory.
“They know how to win,” Cronin said after the game. “They learned that last year.”
And as long as the Bruins take care of business with three home games against Long Beach State, North Florida and Bellarmine, they will go into the much-anticipated pre-Thanksgiving game on Nov. 23 in Las Vegas against No. 1 Gonzaga without a blemish.
UCLA is back, and they are led by a trio of guys that all play with a chip on their shoulder. Juzang returned back home to the west coast after a freshman season at Kentucky in which he averaged 2.9 points per game. Campbell’s starting spot was supposed to be taken last season by highly regarded freshman Daishen Nix, but Nix never made it to campus after he was poached by the NBA’s G-League Ignite. Jaquez was a solid recruit who opted to stick with the Bruins even after the coaching change.
“Tyger and Jaime give us toughness and Johnny gives us confidence that we’re as good as anybody,” Cronin said.
But now this isn’t some sweet little NCAA tourney story of the most storied program in the history of college basketball making a Cinderalla run. Now this program has momentum, bringing in one of the nation’s top recruits this season in Peyton Watson, and signing the No. 2 player in the country, Amari Bailey, to come in for next year.
“It’s already UCLA,” Cronin said. “It’s a great tire; you just gotta pump air into it.”
Mick Cronin, the midwest coach who never thought in his wildest dreams he’d end up coaching at UCLA, has this program rolling now. They’ve gone from an afterthought in the recruiting world to now picking up momentum where they can go toe-to-toe with the likes of John Calipari and Kentucky for recruits.
But the key for Cronin will still be going after the right kids. Cronin is a blue-collar guy, the son of Cincinnati high school coach Hep Cronin. He did an incredible job rebuilding the Cincinnati Bearcats program, but there was a ceiling on what he could do there because they were unable to land enough highly-skilled players to go with the tough, hard-nosed kids that wound up getting the program to nine consecutive NCAA tournament appearances prior to his depature in 2019.
Now the key for Cronin will be to blend some of those “Cincinnati kids,” such as UCLA sophomore Jaylen Clark, with guys who can really put the ball in the basket like Juzang. Skill and toughness.
Friday night was a sign of things to come in Westwood. The students packed Pauley early, and the late-arriving LA crowd didn’t seem quite so tardy. It was the best crowd seen since Lonzo, and this is the best team that the Bruins have rolled out since the ones that Ben Howland took to three consecutive Final Fours from 2006 to ’08.
“To me, it’s UCLA. It’s how it should be,” Cronin said of the crowd. “What a game.”
UCLA was without Cody Riley, and the Bruins didn’t get much from Rutgers transfer Myles Johnson, who gives Cronin an element he didn’t have a year ago as a shot-blocker and rim protector. Watson only played six minutes, but his role will increase as he becomes more comfortable with Cronin’s system and expectations.
“We definitely don’t think it’s a fluke,” Juzang said.
After watching this team pick up where it left off last March, I’m right with him now.