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Column: There’s a reason the Bruins are brimming with confidence in the NCAA tournament: They believe

UCLA players high-five after their 73-62 victory over Brigham Young
UCLA players celebrate their 73-62 victory over Brigham Young in the NCAA tournament on Saturday. They face Abilene Christian on Monday.
(AJ Mast / Associated Press)

For the first time in this NCAA tournament, UCLA will be the favorite when it takes on Abilene Christian in the second round.

Not as if the Bruins didn’t already feel a place in the Sweet 16 was theirs to lose before the Wildcats upset No. 3 seed Texas.

“We know we’re not finished,” UCLA sophomore guard Johnny Juzang said. “Nobody’s satisfied. We don’t plan on going home.”

What Juzang said wasn’t as noteworthy as how he said it.

Calmly.

Confidently.

Evan Mobley had 17 points and 11 rebounds, and USC opened the gap in the second half to beat Drake 72-56 in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

Abilene Christian and Texas were still playing when Juzang spoke in a video conference Saturday night after UCLA’s 73-62 victory over Brigham Young, but it didn’t matter.

The Bruins believe.

Coach Mick Cronin has them feeling as if they’re one of college basketball’s blue-blood programs again and they’re behaving like it.

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It’s taken two pandemic-affected seasons for Cronin to guide them to this point, first by convincing them they were the Little Bruins Who Could, and now by treating them as if they can play with anyone in the country.

“They practice in a gym with 11 banners hanging,” Cronin said.

If their comeback victory over Michigan State in the First Four embodied the resilience they have developed under Cronin, their resounding triumph over BYU was a byproduct of their growing self-assurance.

Their performance at Hinkle Fieldhouse cleared out the remaining stench of the Steve Alford era, as the Bruins took the game to the higher-seeded Cougars.

UC Santa Barbara barely misses out on winning its first NCAA tournament game since 1990 when a late shot fails to drop in a 63-62 loss to Creighton.

The aggressive game plan resulted in early foul trouble for big men Cody Riley and Mac Etienne — Riley picked up two quick fouls and played only three minutes in the first half — but UCLA went into halftime with a 38-27 lead.

Juzang, who was only two days removed from spraining his right ankle, scored 19 of his game-high 27 points in the opening half by making eight of 11 shots, including three of four three-pointers.

The sophomore transfer has the look of a future NBA player and has provided the Bruins with high-end talent that has become rare in recent years. At Harvard-Westlake, the 6-foot-6 shooting guard was a consensus five-star prospect in the class of 2020. He reclassified to the class of 2019, which allowed him to attend Kentucky in what would have been his senior year of high school.

Juzang became only the third player in UCLA history to score 20 or more points in each of his first two NCAA games.

The other two?

Lew Alcindor and Reggie Miller.

UCLA's Johnny Juzang shoots a three-pointer.
UCLA’s Johnny Juzang shoots a three-pointer during Saturday’s game.
(AJ Mast / Associated Press)

“Those are some legendary names,” Juzang said.

Cronin’s coaching acumen has positioned Juzang and his teammates to make history of their own. With Cronin taking care of the Xs and Os, the players don’t have to make up for the kinds of structural deficiencies that were omnipresent under Alford.

The Bruins didn’t double-team 7-foot-3 post player Matt Haarms, focusing instead to disrupt the Cougars’ three-point shooting. BYU had made an average of nine three-pointers in their previous 26 games, which was a major reason why they scored nearly 79 points per game. The plan worked, as the Cougars were only three of 17 from behind the arc.

“If they scored a few buckets inside, we were going to live with it,” Cronin said.

As it turned out, that didn’t happen much, either. Haarms was held to four points in the first half.

Cronin was also prepared for when BYU adjusted its defense to deny Juzang the basketball.

The Cougars went on a 10-0 run in the second half to narrow their deficit to 43-39. But the Bruins immediately countered with an 11-4 surge of their own to extend their lead back to 54-43 with 10 minutes and 57 seconds remaining.

Juzang didn’t score any of the team’s points in that run.

Highlights from UCLA’s 73-62 victory over Brigham Young in an NCAA tournament first-round game Saturday night.

The foundation of that 11-4 counter was built over the season, especially in the days before the Bruins traveled to Indiana.

“I think we came together more than ever with those practices,” Juzang said.

Their trust in each other has evolved into a belief.

“All we’ve got is each other,” Juzang said.

Now, even with Chris Smith and Jalen Hill unavailable, they could reach the second weekend of the tournament.

As they should.

UCLA has been endearing as a plucky underdog, but the identity was never entirely appropriate. Calling the Bruins overachievers in basketball felt as strange as it would have been to categorize Coca-Cola as a small business or Warner Bros. an independent film studio. Cronin’s team is restoring the natural order of the college basketball universe, one in which the 11-time champions don’t just hope they are nationally relevant, but know they always are.


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