They play such a scathing defense, the crowd roars at every deflection.
They are so clever on offense, the crowd roars at every screen.
They are so ready for the road ahead that a packed and bold Pauley Pavilion sent them off Saturday night with the kind of noise rarely heard in this part of Westwood.
This is the loudest UCLA basketball team in years.
This is also the best.
In the wake of the Bruins’ biggest win of the season — an 82-73 victory over eighth-ranked Arizona — there’s only one place left for UCLA to go from here.
The Bruins deserve a No. 1 spot in the upcoming NCAA Tournament no matter what happens in this week’s ugly and mostly irrelevant Pac-12 Tournament.
The selection committee needs to get rid of its inherent regional bias, forget about the bad feelings about UCLA leaving for the Big Ten, and do the right thing.
UCLA is a seed. Period of time. No team is more difficult. No team is put to the test anymore. No team has prepared for this moment together in the last four years.
The 27-4 Bruins may not be future NBA stars, but they are great and accomplished college players, which is what wins championships.
On a night when Bruin’s five senior players were honored in probably their last game at Pauley Pavilion, one song stood out between the star trio of Jaime Jaquez Jr., Tyger Campbell and David Singleton.
Over the past four seasons, they have led the team to a 95-34 record.
That’s a title track. After Saturday’s final buzzer, that was a song that inspired the senior-led group to sprint from the field, run into the stands in the end zone, and jump into a mosh pit of bouncing and cheering students.
Something special is happening here. They know it, and you know it.
“We came to UCLA… no one was at the games… we were on a mission to put UCLA back on top,” said Jaquez. “We’re living a dream now…it’s literally like a…storybook to me.”
It was a glorious night, darkened by a dismal injury, but one that this team seems deeply enough to overcome.
During timeout after defensive grinder Jaylen Clark left the game early in the second half with a lower leg injury, it may have been no coincidence that the arena was filled with the sounds of “Don’t Stop Believing.”
While Bruin fans no doubt immediately thought of how Jaquez’s ankle injury derailed their NCAA tournament hopes last season, these Bruins seem strong enough to survive an extended absence from Clark, who ended the game on the bench with crutches.
“If he’s not okay, I’m going to feel tragically awful for him because he’s a family member to us,” said Clark’s coach Mick Cronin. “But we have plenty of other guys.”
There’s Will McClendon and Dylan Andrews, two highly regarded kids who have barely been seen. There’s shot-blocking power Adem Bona. And of course there are those three seniors.
“Our seniors… I didn’t think they would let us lose today,” Cronin said.
These Bruins are so loaded that they have won 25 straight games at the national level in what used to be a low-key Pauley Pavilion.
These Bruins seem so destined that they ended their home schedule with the streak intact on a night that also saw them celebrate the 50th anniversary of the 1973 national championship.
If Saturday was any indication, more memories are coming.
The Bruins forced 17 Arizona wraps, were six times faster than the bigger Wildcats, and scored more second-chance and fast-break points and points in the paint. They basically wrestled one of the most physical teams in the country to the ground and pinned them down. That’s how you win in the midst of the madness. That’s why you don’t want to bet against them.
“The recipe for success in March is … a great point guard and some senior leadership,” Cronin said. “So we have a chance.”
Since Cronin took over from Steve Alford, the program has been building this month.
In his first season, he built a team that was one of the best teams in the country before COVID-19 shut everything down. Two years ago they advanced to the Final Four. Last year they were promoted to the Sweet 16.
They now seem ready to take the final step.
There’s none of the indecisiveness that plagued that first Cronin season. Certainly no other 12-yard jump shot can wait to beat them like they did in 2021. They play better as a team than last season, when the ball often stopped in deference to goalscorer Johnny Juzang.
They play their best defense of the Cronin era. They play with the highest basketball IQ of the Cronin era. They play as well as anyone in the country.
They started the day fourth in net rating, losing two of the three teams ahead of them, with both Alabama and Tennessee falling to lesser opponents.
They started the day second in the respected KenPom basketball ratings, and even if you don’t understand all those decimals, you understand they’re better suited for a top spot than some of the other more publicized candidates.
Purdue as a single seed? The Boilermakers have lost four of their last seven games, including a 14-point loss to a Maryland team that beat UCLA by 27.
Alabama as a seed? Although it was embroiled in a murder scandal, it lost two of its last six games, including Saturday’s fall to Texas A&M in 24th.
Houston and Kansas are the only clear, No. 1 seeds, and even Kansas has to be questioned after losing 16 points to Texas in eighth place on Saturday.
Some may think it’s better for UCLA to be number 2 if it keeps them in a West region played in Las Vegas.
But they deserve a top spot as well as a spot in Las Vegas where a Bruin fanbase who historically doesn’t travel well would fill the Strip. Many of those people have personally seen a version of this team win 25 games in a row. They know it would be worth the trip.
“You have to have talent and good kids,” Cronin said. “These guys are winners.”
Before Saturday’s game, Jaquez hopped onto the field and danced to the beat of the Bruins’ fight song, while senior walk-on Russell Stong delivered a layup-line dunk that sent the cheering crowd to their feet.
The game ended with the same energy, Jaquez picking up yet another deflection, putting it in to give the Bruins a double digit lead, then yelling at thousands of staggering witnesses who yelled back.
Cover your ears, Bruin fans. The next few weeks can be deafening.