It’s glamorously called, “The Road to the Final Four,” but the day UCLA received his coordinates, he surely realized something.
They weren’t exactly placed on a highway. They were placed in a narrow, winding stretch of mud and rocks. They were placed on a rutted road that apparently headed straight into a ditch.
There is the state of Boise. There’s Gonzaga. It’s, gasp, Kansas.
In the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament matchups announced Sunday, the Bruins were placed in the toughest region against some of the toughest teams and must compete without potentially two of their toughest players.
In other words, they placed themselves right in the wheelhouse of coach Mick Cronin.
This is going to be tough, it could get ugly, and he and his Bruins can’t wait.
“We try to create a culture of no excuses,” Cronin told reporters on Sunday afternoon. “I also try to teach them that about their life. If you have the toughness and willingness to work, you can get where you want to go.”
Where they want to go suddenly seems a long way from here, with defensive leader Jaylen Clark seemingly out for the season with a lower leg injury and big man Adem Bona with shoulder pain, but Cronin didn’t budge.
“You know, there is a way to win a game,” he said. “There’s always a way to win a game, it doesn’t matter if Jaylen Clark is out, Adem is out, God forbid someone else is. There is always a way to win a game. It may not be that easy, your margin of error may not be that great. But there’s still a way to win the game if you’re willing to be tough enough to do it. And these guys are, because they want to win. That’s what they’re about.”
Yes, following Sunday’s announcement, the Bruins can celebrate that they were the No. 2 seed in the West Region. In fact, they can play the first two rounds in Sacramento, and if they’re still alive, they’d play the next two rounds in Las Vegas, and that’s a wonderful thing.
But have you checked who they might be playing with? Have you ever wondered how they are going to survive the combination of tough matchups and lost players?
Apparently, UCLA ran out of the challenge two seasons ago when they battled their way to the Final Four from the starting position of an 11th seed in a play-in game.
The truth is that they are going to have to do something like that again. Playing without Clark and with a hampered Bona, the Bruins will have to navigate this “road” with all the wits Cronin can muster.
Once again, the last dance combo of Jaime Jaquez Jr. and Tyger Campbell and David Singleton can’t wait.
“I know the three of us have had a lot of conversations about this being our last year together and we just accept it,” Jaquez told reporters. “This is one last chance to make something happen, our backs are against the wall right now, we feel like it, but we are accepting it, we take everything that comes with it.”
First up, North Carolina Asheville, a 15 seed with a NET rating of 140 and yet a team that could at least surprise. The Bulldogs have won 18 of their last 19 games and can take advantage of Bona’s limitations with one of the best big men in the nation, Drew Pember, a 6-foot-10 senior averaging 21 points and nine rebounds per game.
“We know you can’t take anything for granted,” Singleton said. “We have to give 100% effort in every game of this tournament, starting with UNC Asheville.”
Next, it says here that Boise State beats Northwestern and brings the Bruins to their NET ranking of 29 with wins against Texas A&M, Washington State and Colorado. The Broncos are also led by the March-winning senior guard combination guy with Marcus Shaver Jr. and Max Rice.
“We have to make sure that … our gas tank is ready to go,” Cronin said.
The Bruins can and should survive those first two games, but it could be dangerous and its payoff could be downright deflating. Waiting for them in Las Vegas could be an old nemesis and a defending champion.
Do you really want to play Gonzaga again? Especially now? The Bulldogs have a NET ranking of six and their only three losses since late November have come by one point or in overtime. They’re led by 6-10 forward Drew Timme, who has apparently been in college for the past decade.
This is the year that, for once, no one has paid attention to Gonzaga. It sounds like this could be the year the Bulldogs finally win a national championship.
You know who else could win a national title, becoming the third repeat champion in 50 years? Kansas is back, and despite being knocked out in the Big 12 tournament championship game against Texas with their coach Bill Self in the hospital, it’s still Kansas.
The Jayhawks played the toughest schedule in the country, led the country with 17 Quad 1 wins, and are motivated by the experienced Jalen Wilson and Dajuan Harris Jr.
If nothing else, if they make it to the glitzy Las Vegas region, the Bruins can build on their sweaty experience there this weekend in the Pac-12 Tournament.
They nearly missed a free throw and missed a wide three-point attempt in defeating No. 8 Arizona in Saturday night’s championship game despite having four key players on the bench. Not only were Clark and Bona missing, but also their other two big men, Mac Etienne and Kenneth Nwuba, who both fouled.
The relentless foursome of Jaquez Jr., Campbell, Singleton and freshman Amari Bailey nearly beat the massively talented Wildcats all by themselves. Survival for the next three weeks will require all of that effort and more.
“We have to have a short memory, get better, figure out the things we need to do, watch the movie and go from there,” Jaquez said.
Another Los Angeles team will join them in the madness, being USC. Despite their listless loss to Arizona State in the Pac-12 tournament, the Trojans entered the tournament as a No. 10 seed in the East, but they aren’t expected to last long.
If they can beat tournament guru Tom Izzo and Michigan State in the first round, a possibility if Drew Peterson’s back weakens, then they must face powerful No. 2 seed Marquette, a team many have picked to clinch the title on weekend.
For both locals, “The Road To The Final Four” should be nothing short of a twisty, fast-paced adventure.