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Having made the best of a rocky regular season, UCLA wants more in March

Coach Mick Cronin talks to UCLA players on the sideline.
Coach Mick Cronin talks to UCLA players on the sideline during a game against Washington State in Pullman, Wash., on Feb. 11.
(Young Kwak / Associated Press)

John Wooden would have admired this weary, worn, fading team.

Instead of lamenting UCLA’s three consecutive collapses, the venerable coach would have trumpeted the Bruins building back-to-back-to-back leads against more athletic and veteran-laden opponents.

Instead of noting how the team shriveled on the verge of the Pac-12 tournament, he would have touted it nearly winning the conference’s regular-season title without its go-to scorer or top interior defender, leaving no NBA-ready players.

It’s been 10 years since the death of UCLA basketball coach John Wooden and we still miss his simplicity and grace, writes columnist Bill Plaschke.

Anyone who doubts that the late Wooden would have embraced the current Bruins only needs to take a stroll on campus, stopping at the statue of the coach outside Pauley Pavilion. Below the bronzed likeness of Wooden, arms folded across his chest, hand clutching his trusty rolled-up program, is a plaque bearing one of his favorite sayings.

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“Success is peace of mind,” the quote reads, “which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to become the best of which you are capable.”

Something similar was said inside Pauley Pavilion last weekend. UCLA coach Mick Cronin sounded like he was parroting his legendary predecessor, providing sage solace after his team’s latest stumble sent the Bruins (17-8) staggering into a Pac-12 tournament quarterfinal against Oregon State (14-12) on Thursday afternoon at T-Mobile Arena.

“We’re playing as well as we can play,” Cronin said after USC guard Tahj Eaddy’s three-pointer gave the Trojans a 64-63 victory in the regular-season finale and served as a dagger through the hearts of the Bruins. “We just played three really good teams we played really well. That’s my opinion. I’m helping them as much as I can help. The goal now is to make sure they don’t quit fighting, because we’re overachieving. They’re giving everything they got. My fear is they run out of gas.”

Since tearing a knee ligament in December, senior guard Chris Smith has become UCLA’s biggest fan. He says the Bruins can make a long run in the NCAA tournament.

To make his point about his team maximizing its potential, Cronin pointed out that the Bruins played the Trojans without four players who could have been in their starting lineup.

There was Daishen Nix, the five-star point guard who signed with UCLA only to back out early in the COVID-19 pandemic and head for the G League. There was Chris Smith, the lanky, bouncy guard who was just starting to play like a Pac-12 most valuable player candidate when his season ended with a torn knee ligament. There was Jalen Hill, the shot-blocking menace who left the team in early February for personal reasons. And there was Johnny Juzang, the leading scorer who missed the USC game after tweaking an ankle but is expected to return against Oregon State.

That the Bruins led their hated rivals for 37:35 and never trailed until Eaddy’s shot with 1.4 seconds left only reinforced Cronin’s sentiment.

UCLA and USC enter Saturday showdown looking for some redemption — and a possible chance to grab first place in the Pac-12 — after recent struggles.

“I mean, they’re doing all they can, buddy,” Cronin told a reporter inquiring about what he could do to help his players. “I just got to keep them fighting.”

How has he gone about it over the last few days, besides giving his players a rare two-day break?

“He just says, ‘We‘ve got to keep going,’” point guard Tyger Campbell said. “He says we’re playing good, but obviously what we’re doing isn’t good enough.”

Nix’s departure before his arrival, at a time when there was uncertainty about a college basketball season being held, lowered the ceiling on the team’s potential. It left the Bruins with only one pure point guard in Campbell, who is among the Pac-12 leaders in minutes played, lessening his effectiveness late in games when the team’s offense has recently stalled.

Clutch efforts in the late moments of UCLA’s win over Arizona State showcased some of the traits that could serve the Bruins well in the NCAA tournament.

Asked about bringing in another point guard once Nix had left in late April, Cronin called such a move “impossible.”

“I mean, who are you going to get at that point?” Cronin said. “The problem is, say you take a guy that’s really a mid-major player just from an insurance standpoint. OK, he doesn’t play much and you recruit over him. Is that really right? I know we’ve got to win, but obviously I’m trying to think long term. And then you maybe can’t sign a certain player because you have a point guard, but yet maybe he’s not the guy that can help us get to a [national] title, which is [my] mind-set.”

The Bruins’ return to elite status could be nearing. They have signed Long Beach Poly High standout Peyton Watson, ending a two-year drought of not having a McDonald’s All-American on the roster, and recently received a commitment from Chatsworth Sierra Canyon junior Amari Bailey. With those two additions, Cronin will have brought in the top-rated player in California in back-to-back recruiting classes.

In the meantime, the Bruins will try to get by on guile and a ball of twine. They have a roster filled with good, young players but no clutch, savvy stars. With Juzang sidelined Saturday, UCLA started Mac Etienne, a freshman forward who joined the team in midseason after graduating early from high school.

Despite all their inadequacies, the Bruins were competing for the Pac-12 title in their last game of the regular season. Cronin pulled out another Wooden quote in describing how his team didn’t falter so much as it played to its capabilities.

“True greatness,” Cronin said, “is giving your best effort.”


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