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UCLA coach Mick Cronin crafts schedule that delivers rare March-esque magic in fall

UCLA coach Mick Cronin, center, celebrates with his team after an Elite 8 win over Michigan
UCLA coach Mick Cronin, center, worked to build an exciting 2021-22 schedule that includes a marquee home showdown between the No. 2 Bruins and No. 4 Villanova on Friday night.
(Michael Conroy / Associated Press)

The overmatched opponent vanquished, the final notes of the UCLA band’s victory song “Rover” complete, the students made their wishes known inside Pauley Pavilion.

“We want ‘Nova!” they chanted late Tuesday night. “We want ‘Nova!”

The second-ranked Bruins (1-0) will play fourth-ranked Villanova (1-0) on Friday in something of a rarity. It’s the first nonconference matchup of top-five teams at Pauley Pavilion since top-ranked Duke downed fourth-ranked UCLA on March 1, 1992.

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It’s also something of an appetizer on a schedule that resembles a multicourse tasting menu. The Bruins will face top-ranked Gonzaga later this month in Las Vegas in a rematch of their epic Final Four showdown before returning to the city the week before Christmas to play No. 19 North Carolina at T-Mobile Arena.

“You go to UCLA, those are the games you want to play,” Bruins junior guard Jaime Jaquez Jr. said recently. “You don’t not want to play against the top teams and so when you have a schedule like that, you can only get excited.”

No. 2 UCLA opens the 2021-22 season on Tuesday against Cal State Bakersfield and could continue the March magic from last season’s NCAA tournament run.

UCLA coach Mick Cronin said crafting a challenging nonconference schedule was part of his efforts to help his teams live up to their legacy. Those are the games that excite players, invigorate fans and entice recruits who envision themselves participating in something similar, hesaid.

That’s not to say making that sort of schedule is as easy as picking up the phone.

“What people on the outside don’t realize is, somebody else has to agree,” Cronin said. “You can’t just say, ‘Hey, guess what, you know, I want to play Team X’ and call them and they agree. They’ve got to have openings, they have to feel like it’s equitable, it makes sense, it depends on their schedule and who’s going to start at home, are you going to play home-and-home, who’s going to be away first.”

The Bruins were able to add Gonzaga at a neutral site after previously scheduled games involving both teams had shifted over the summer. The game against North Carolina is part of the annual CBS Sports Classic that also includes Kentucky and Ohio State, with the teams facing each other on a rotating basis.

The Villanova game was a product of an old friendship. Cronin and Wildcats counterpart Jay Wright have competed against one another since their teams both resided in the Big East Conference when Cronin coached at Cincinnati. When the Bearcats departed for the American Athletic Conference before the 2013-14 season, the coaches contemplated resuming the rivalry in a nonconference game.

UCLA coach Mick Cronin isn’t shying away from big goals this season for his deep and talented team after last spring’s surprise run to the Final Four.

“We were sitting at a game and he was like, ‘Why would we do that to each other?’ ” Cronin said, referring to the all-out effort each of their teams is known for giving.

The marquee matchup made sense once Cronin took the UCLA job and quickly established the Bruins as national-title contenders alongside Villanova, which has won two national championships under Wright.

Cal State Bakersfield found its way onto UCLA’s schedule as the season opener because Cronin thought the Roadrunners’ physical, defensive style would provide good preparation for Villanova, which returns four starters from the team that reached an NCAA tournament regional semifinal before losing to eventual national champion Baylor. The Wildcats throttled Mount St. Mary’s 91-51 in their season opener.

The Bruins and Wildcats won’t play next season, at Villanova’s request, before UCLA travels to Philadelphia for the return game during the 2023-24 season.

Coach Mick Cronin, back home with his team in L.A., says loss to Gonzaga should not wipe out the glory of UCLA’s magical NCAA tournament run.

Cronin said scheduling will only get more complicated as major conference teams move to 20-game conference schedules and agree to play in conference challenges that leave them with few openings.

“You’ve got to pay the bills for your university, so you’ve got to have 19 or so home games,” Cronin said, “so you’ve got to buy some wins and that doesn’t leave many [games], especially when you’re in a multiteam event, so it’s tough.”

Cronin made it work, satisfying those fans longing for some early-season fun.


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