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UCLA Sports

UCLA is focusing on hoops, not hype, heading into crosstown rivalry game with USC

UCLA guard Jaime Jaquez Jr. (4) and forward Jalen Hill (24) celebrate after the team’s win over Arizona State on Feb. 27 at Pauley Pavilion.
UCLA guard Jaime Jaquez Jr. (4) and forward Jalen Hill (24) celebrate after the team’s win over Arizona State on Feb. 27 at Pauley Pavilion.
(Ringo H.W. Chiu / Associated Press)

UCLA’s shooting guard has been compared to Larry Bird, its coach has been memed as Cronin the Barbarian and its players have been labeled as special by Jamaal Wilkes, one of the school’s all-time greats.

The wins, and the hype, are piling up for the Bruins.

Two television cameras and a newspaper columnist joined the usual small group of reporters who showed up Wednesday for Mick Cronin’s weekly media availability on campus, the coach thanking the columnist for making the drive from Long Beach.

Gratitude became the theme of the day, the coach saying his daughter Sammi appreciated the Cronin the Barbarian meme that superimposed his head onto that of a bulging-biceped, sword-wielding Arnold Schwarzenegger from “Conan the Barbarian.”

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“It’s been three or four years since I was built like that,” Cronin cracked of an image that had been widely circulated on Twitter.

Past and present came together at Pauley Pavilion over the weekend as former UCLA greats watched the current Bruins continue their late-season run against Arizona.

The growing buzz could easily swell the Bruins’ heads after a late-season surge in which they have won seven consecutive games to move into sole possession of first place in the Pac-12 Conference, but Cronin has a possible antidote for arrogance.

“Just show them film of USC and USC’s defense, USC beating us at Pauley and that ought to get our attention, I would hope,” Cronin said.

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Cronin displayed some game footage on a courtside monitor at the start of practice Wednesday as a teaching point for a team looking to counter the 74-63 beating the Bruins absorbed from the Trojans in January at Pauley Pavilion.

UCLA will face its crosstown rival in the rematch Saturday at the Galen Center, having to contend with what Cronin called the best trio of big men in college basketball in Onyeka Okongwu, Nick Rakocevic and Isaiah Mobley as well as the top shooting guard in the Pac-12 in Jonah Mathews.

Arizona’s Max Hazzard (5) guards UCLA’s Tyger Campbell (10) as he drives to the basket in the first half at Pauley Pavilion on Feb. 29.
Arizona’s Max Hazzard (5) guards UCLA’s Tyger Campbell (10) as he drives to the basket in the first half at Pauley Pavilion on Feb. 29.
(Jayne Kamin-Oncea / Getty Images)

The Trojans have already infiltrated Cronin’s dreams, the coach saying he awoke at 5 a.m. to visions of Rakocevic snagging rebounds for basket after basket.

“I was all over Chris Smith,” Cronin said, referencing the Bruin responsible for defending Rakocevic in his dream.

Fortunately for the Bruins, their pinch-me success is very much real.

UCLA’s NCAA tournament hopes seemed like a fantasy only a few weeks ago before the Bruins posted consecutive wins over Arizona, Washington State, Washington, Utah, Colorado, Arizona State and Arizona. They’re still considered fringe contenders for an at-large bid, but Cronin said he doesn’t discuss his team’s tournament chances with his players.

“We’re in a one-game tournament and they know it; we all know it,” Cronin said, alluding to the potential for one more loss to keep the Bruins (19-11 overall, 12-5 Pac-12) out of the NCAA tournament. “Now we’re in one game to win the Pac-12 championship and we may have to share it [with Oregon], so it’s another one-game tournament.”

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The Bruins were feeling like winners after Cronin sent them to celebrate with their fellow students at the end of their 69-64 triumph over Arizona last weekend. The fun continued once players went back to class.

Bruins rank 18th nationally for month in one metric that is important to gamblers. Team hoping NCAA Tournament selectors are paying attention.

Shooting guard Jake Kyman heard several “Larry” references after Arizona State coach Bobby Hurley had compared him to Bird, the NBA legend, and guard Jules Bernard won praise from students in a French class for a sequence against Arizona in which he followed a block with a three-pointer.

“It’s amazing getting a lot of love from the fans, the media about how this team is amazing,” Kyman said, “but we’ve got a mission and that’s to keep winning, make the [NCAA] tournament and win the Pac-12 tournament also.”

Cronin has received much of the praise for his team’s turnaround from an 8-9 record in mid-January but made a point of saying that his players were the ones who deserved the bulk of the recognition.

“I think probably I’ve gotten too much credit,” Cronin said. “I haven’t scored a basket. I think our players have become a team. We’re obviously not a perfect machine, but our guys are playing to win, they care about each other and they’ve learned to never give up, they refuse to surrender and I think that’s the key to our run and that’s a credit to them.”

Even if the run, and the fun, have made the Bruins something of a media sensation, they vowed to maintain their edge. This is all too enjoyable to stop now.

“We want to win games and we don’t want this to stop,” guard Jaime Jaquez Jr. said. “This feeling is great and we don’t want it to end any time soon.”


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