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Column: UCLA is back on track but faces a Gonzaga team reminiscent of John Wooden’s Bruins

UCLA guard Tyger Campbell, right, hugs teammate Jaime Jaquez Jr. as part of UCLA's postgame celebration.
UCLA guard Tyger Campbell, right, hugs teammate Jaime Jaquez Jr. after a win over Michigan that gave the Bruins their first Final Four berth since 2008.
(Darron Cummings / Associated Press)

Before Mick Cronin took over as coach, UCLA’s basketball program had lost more than games and stature: The Bruins had lost their identity. They were plodding and ordinary, unforgivable sins to a fan base forever spoiled by John Wooden’s 10 titles in 12 seasons.

Coach Ben Howland had three straight 30-win seasons but couldn’t sustain the success of a 2006 national runner-up finish and Final Four appearances the next two years. Steve Alford lured five-star recruits but didn’t capitalize on their talent. “Schools I’d never heard of were walking into Pauley Pavilion thinking, ‘This is going to be fun,’ ” said Andy Hill, a reserve guard on the Bruins’ championship teams in 1970, ‘71 and ’72 and a season ticket holder.

“To see teams wander into Pauley Pavilion going, ‘Hot dog, I can’t wait to play the Bruins,’ was a little hard to stomach.”

Cronin wasn’t UCLA’s first or second choice. He might not have been Plan C, either. When the Bruins were 10-10 in late January of 2020, some fans wondered about Plan D and beyond. “The team was struggling,” said Marques Johnson, a forward on UCLA’s 1975 championship team. “The type of style, my attitude was like, ‘If you’re going to play this style you should have kept Ben Howland and his three straight Final Fours.’ A deliberate, defensive-oriented style of basketball, which I love and I have a lot of respect for, but that was my knee-jerk reaction.”

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That changed when Cronin got the Bruins on a 9-1 roll in Pacific-12 conference play. They grew confident, consistent. They weren’t chumps anymore. “I always felt that if they hadn’t been postponed because of COVID they were headed for big things last year,” Johnson said.

The Bruins have fulfilled that promise this season, advancing to a Final Four matchup against unbeaten and favored Gonzaga on Saturday in Indianapolis. They’re back in a place they consider a birthright, along the way winning respect for being poised and selfless and restoring pride the program had lost through many lackluster years.

“They’re playing the way UCLA basketball teams are supposed to play,” said Henry Bibby, the starting point guard on the 1970-71-72 championship teams. “Having played in that program, we don’t accept anything other than what they’re doing now. Once you put on that UCLA on the front of your chest, you’re a different person. You’re like Superman.

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“And I think that’s what they feel now, and they have a shot going in against Gonzaga.”

They earned that shot. “We’re back where we belong,” Hill said, “and anybody who thinks that the only thing that will make us happy is a championship is an idiot. I don’t know a Bruin fan in the world who isn’t ecstatic regardless of what happens Saturday night. If we get beat and Gonzaga goes undefeated, good for them. They’re a tremendous team. You want to lose to the champs.

“But I’m not going to count these guys out until there’s no time left on the clock. By the way, underscored and in caps, I love Mick Cronin. He is fantastic.”

Unlike Gonzaga (30-0), the Bruins (22-9) faced some tests this season, including losing their last four games before the NCAA tournament. “After they had that lull I didn’t see them going so far,” Bibby said. “Winning one game can change the whole complexion of your season. And they won one game and said, ‘Whoa. We take one game at a time and if we win one game at a time and win three or four we’re in the Final Four,’ and that’s what’s happened.”

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Gonzaga coach Mark Few and guard Jalen Suggs watch from the sideline
Gonzaga coach Mark Few and guard Jalen Suggs watch from the sideline during the Bulldogs’ 85-66 win over USC in the West Regional final.
(Darron Cummings / Associated Press)

The Bulldogs, who set an NCAA record by compiling a fifth straight 30-win season, have won 27 straight games by double digits. The Bruins didn’t win the Pac-12 tournament and had to face Michigan State in a First Four game, which they won by six points in overtime. They beat Michigan in the Elite Eight by two points.

Gonzaga’s progression under coach Mark Few has been impressive, building to a deep and dominant team this season. “The biggest compliment I can give them is they look like a John Wooden team to me,” Hill said. “This is a marvelous basketball team that, quite frankly, I’m flattered to have them compared to our old undefeated teams. They’re tremendous. Anybody who feels it’s an inappropriate comparison is being a grumpy old man.”

Johnson didn’t sound grumpy during a recent phone conversation, and he has long been a big fan of Few. But as he noted, the Bulldogs aren’t in the league of Wooden’s teams during their peak.

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“In those days, you had to win the conference to get to the NCAA tournament. There was a 24-2 USC team in [1970-71] with Paul Westphal that didn’t get a shot,” Johnson said. “It’s remarkable what Gonzaga has done in terms of building themselves as a major, major power in today’s game. Whether you can compare a program that has two Final Four appearances to a program that won 10 in 12 years I just don’t think, to me, it’s not a comparison.”

Bibby said his Bruins played in a tougher conference than the West Coast Conference Bulldogs do, but he sees a similarity in Few’s ability to maintain a high level over a long period of time. In an era of one-and-done, that’s not easy.

“Kids want to go and play at Gonzaga because of what he’s done. Same thing that UCLA used to do,” Bibby said. “People wanted to go play at UCLA because we were champions. We were winning every year. So his program will probably never be down because he can recruit nationally at Gonzaga and he’s shown consistency in his program and what he can do.”

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Johnson said UCLA can win on Saturday by controlling the tempo and keeping the score down. He also thinks the Bruins have more scoring options than USC did during its Elite Eight loss to Gonzaga. “I think we’ve got enough guys who can create their own shot on the perimeter to offset some of the aggressive double-teaming and defensive schemes that Gonzaga employs,” he said.

Bibby, who praised the Bruins as a methodical and grinding team that plays solid defense, believes the Bruins’ losses might help them win Saturday. “They’ve played in some tough games and they’ve pulled some of those tough games out. They know what it’s like to lose. ... They know what it feels like,” he said. “Gonzaga doesn’t know yet what it feels like to lose or be in a tight basketball game.”

John Wooden, shown in 1975, coached UCLA to 10 NCAA titles.
John Wooden, shown in 1975, coached UCLA to 10 NCAA titles.
(Dan Tichonchuk / San Diego Union-Tribune)

Bibby, who last season coached the Tijuana Zonkeys pro team, joked he will be coaching from the sideline while he watches Saturday’s game. Johnson, an analyst on Milwaukee Bucks telecasts, plans to sneak looks at his phone to keep up with texts from his regular chat group, which includes former Bruins Bill Walton, Larry Hollyfield, Jamaal Wilkes and Bob Webb.

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Hill, who became a successful movie and TV executive, motivational speaker and author of a book with Wooden, regularly texts with Bruin-turned-actor Mike Warren and Cronin. Hill’s usual companions while watching games are his son-in-law and grandson, Zach Berman. He expects Wooden to be with them in spirit on Saturday.

“He’s smiling. I just know he’s smiling,” Hill said. “He’s smiling because we’re back. We’re back where we belong.”


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