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UCLA’s Mick Cronin and Marquette’s Shaka Smart share history of inspiring underdogs

UCLA coach Mick Cronin raises both arms and smiles.
UCLA coach Mick Cronin reacts to a call during a Final Four game against Gonzaga in April 2021.
(Darron Cummings / Associated Press)

UCLA is No. 4, Marquette unranked.

The Bruins will be playing in front of their most hostile crowd of the season, the Golden Eagles emboldened by all those decibels.

Mick Cronin won’t have any hair — win or lose — while Shaka Smart, whose head was also once topped by a clean pate, is now sporting a shock of curly locks in a move that Cronin joked was intended to rub it in to those who aren’t as fortunate.

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Cody Riley, who hasn’t played for UCLA since suffering a knee injury in the season opener, could see playing time Saturday against Marquette.

Amid all the discrepancies that play out Saturday evening at Fiserv Forum, there will be one fascinating parallel: This will be the first meeting involving coaches who took their teams from the First Four to the Final Four.

Smart did it a decade ago at Virginia Commonwealth, back when he didn’t have any hair, sparking his rapid rise through the coaching ranks.

Cronin’s Bruins became the darlings of the college basketball world last spring, pulling out one improbable victory after another on their way to an epic battle with Gonzaga.

In the decade-long existence of the First Four, Cronin and Smart are the only coaches to take their teams all the way from those humble beginnings to college basketball’s final weekend.

The coaches have never faced each other but came oh-so-close twice. Cronin’s Cincinnati Bearcats were supposed to face Smart’s Commodores in December 2014 when Cronin was sidelined by excruciating pain in his head that was caused by an arterial dissection. (VCU won by 21 points and Cronin didn’t coach a game the rest of the season.)

“I was on some sort of horse tranquilizer when they played that game,” Cronin said earlier this week. “Don’t recall much of that one.”

Jaylen Clark was one of UCLA’s unsung heroes in the Bruins’ victory over Villanova, living up to his reputation as a super-stopper for Mick Cronin.

It was only last March that Cronin thought his Bruins would play Smart’s third-seeded Texas Longhorns before they were upset by Abilene Christian in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

“When we beat BYU,” Cronin said, “I think, you know what, we’re going to play Texas and I was doing a media Zoom with you guys, I walked out and somebody said they lost.”

That defeat led to Smart’s departure for Marquette, where the Golden Eagles (8-2) are implementing some of his previous teams’ hallmarks by playing pressure defense, if not to the extent they did while he was at VCU. The Bruins (7-1) spent part of the practice session open to the media Thursday working on a full-court press break.

Marquette has logged impressive victories over Illinois and West Virginia and is coming off a 64-63 triumph over Kansas State on Wednesday in which redshirt freshman Oso Ighodaro blocked a shot near the basket with four seconds left to preserve the final margin.

The UCLA men’s basketball team will not play Washington on Sunday because seven individuals within the Huskies’ program are under COVID protocols.

There’s a chance this game could mark the return of UCLA redshirt senior forward Cody Riley from a knee injury that has sidelined him since the first half of the team’s season opener — Cronin said he would decide on Riley’s status after practice Friday — but something else is certain besides the coaching showdown.

UCLA won’t feel much support inside an arena where Marquette averages 12,892 fans and is expecting its biggest crowd of the season, dwarfing the 6,392 who showed up two weeks ago when the Bruins thumped host Nevada Las Vegas at the Thomas & Mack Center.

“I told the guys the crowd was going to be packed at UNLV and some guys were looking at me sideways after the game,” Cronin said, “So I said, ‘Well, look, you’ve got to give me one more chance, I promise you Marquette will be packed.’ ”

UP NEXT

AT MARQUETTE

When: 6:30 p.m. PST, Saturday.

Where: Fiserv Forum, Milwaukee.

On the air: TV: FS2; Radio: 1150.

Update: UCLA suffered a setback in recruiting Friday when five-star prospect Mark Mitchell picked Duke over the Bruins and Missouri. Mitchell, a 6-foot-8 small forward from Bel Aire (Kan.) Sunrise Christian Academy, combines elite athleticism with polished moves and an uncanny ability to finish at the rim in spectacular fashion. The Bruins remain poised to bring in one of the nation’s top classes with five-star combo guard Amari Bailey, five-star center Adem Bona and four-star point guard Dylan Andrews.


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