UCLA enters Pac-12 tournament hoping to recapture magical March ride

UCLA's Jaime Jaquez Jr., center, celebrates with Johnny Juzang, left, and Jaylen Clark.
UCLA’s Jaime Jaquez Jr., center, celebrates with Johnny Juzang, left, and Jaylen Clark during the second half of the Bruins’ 75-68 win over USC at Pauley Pavilion on March 5.
(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

The racehorse fetched $225,000 at auction last spring, its high price a function of lineage. Half-brother Nashville was a stakes winner in a handful of early races, and the six-figure sibling displayed promise in his first workout at Santa Anita when he clocked the fastest time among seven entrants.

Nearly a year after the horse’s name was inspired by another charmed run, it’s once more time to unleash that Bruin Magic.

“The question is,” owner Mick Cronin said, “can we capture the magic again?”


It’s something everyone is asking about Cronin’s other big passion. The UCLA Bruins captivated more than their fan base with an epic surge through March a year ago, their staying power unfurling for a legion of admirers that swelled every step of the way, from the First Four to the Final Four.

Cronin could sense his team was in the midst of something special. All he had to do was look at his players and feel their passion.

“We had the magic of a team that was so committed to staying alive and winning,” Cronin said. “You watched our bench, you could just see it. It was magnetic, it drew people to being fans of ours that weren’t even fans of ours. I think we gotta capture that again somehow.”

UCLA could need help this week in order to be placed in San Diego to open NCAA tournament play instead of Texas Tech.

Consider this week’s Pac-12 tournament a warmup for the big race. A year ago, UCLA showed it was possible to prevail in the games that matter after going splat in the conference tournament.

It’s a phenomenon that Cronin knows well.

In his last conference tournament at Cincinnati, Cronin savored a title. As he conducted a television interview in a hallway afterward, players walked past wearing American Athletic Conference champion T-shirts, one playfully dancing in view of the camera while cradling the tournament trophy in his arms.

The Bearcats went on to lose in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

In his first conference tournament at UCLA, Cronin lamented a quick exit. His team lost in the quarterfinal round, stunned players trudging off the court before boarding a quiet bus back to the airport.

The Bruins went on to the Final Four.

UCLA coach Mick Cronin hugs forward Cody Riley.
UCLA coach Mick Cronin celebrates with forward Cody Riley after the Bruins defeated Michigan 51-49 in the Elite Eight at the 2021 NCAA tournament.
(Getty Images)

All of which is to say that conference tournaments should come with a caveat: attach any significance at your own risk.

Cronin is an expert in this trivial pursuit, having won more conference tournament titles (two) than NCAA tournament games (one) over his last two seasons at Cincinnati.

Then again, there can be an upside to cutting down nets before Selection Sunday. With his second-seeded Bruins (23-6) on the eve of a Pac-12 tournament quarterfinal against Washington State or California on Thursday evening at T-Mobile Arena, Cronin acknowledged the possible benefits of an extended stay on the Strip.

“It’s an opportunity to try to improve while winning games,” Cronin said. “Obviously, you’d like to win [the conference tournament], but I think Illinois cut the nets down last year in the Big Ten and I know they would have traded that to be able to get out of the first weekend” in the tournament that matters.

The top-seeded Fighting Illini lost in the second round of the NCAA tournament, a premature demise familiar to other major conference champions. Georgia Tech won the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament before losing its next game. The same fate awaited Texas after prevailing in the Big 12 tournament. Alabama won the Southeastern Conference tournament before getting dispatched by UCLA in the Sweet 16.

UCLA’s hard-fought victory over a resilient USC team shows the Bruins are in a prime spot to be dancing deep into the NCAA tournament once again.

Oregon State was an outlier, winning the Pac-12 tournament and sustaining its run for two more weeks to reach the Elite Eight.

Winning it all is often preceded by a stumble in the conference tournament.

Of the last 15 national champions, only seven won their conference tournaments. Defending national champion Baylor, one of the most dominant teams in recent years, failed to win the Big 12 tournament, losing in a semifinal. In 2019, Virginia, the conqueror of all six teams it faced in the NCAA tournament, won just one ACC tournament game before falling to Florida State.

While UCLA, USC and Arizona enter this week assured of making the NCAA tournament, every other Pac-12 team probably must win the conference tournament to hear its name called on Selection Sunday.

That’s not to say there wouldn’t be upside to a deep run for the Bruins. A couple of wins in Las Vegas likely would assure the team of securing its preferred destination for the opening rounds of the NCAA tournament.

“Obviously,” Cronin said, “it would be great to stay in San Diego.”

UCLA guard Johnny Juzang, right, drives by USC guard Reese Dixon-Waters
UCLA’s Johnny Juzang drives past USC’s Reese Dixon-Waters on March 5 at Pauley Pavilion.
(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

Most bracket prognosticators have slotted the Bruins into San Diego or Portland, Ore., meaning they won’t have to worry about a long plane ride. The biggest uncertainty surrounds UCLA’s seeding. ESPN’s Joe Lunardi told The Times that the Bruins are currently a high No. 4 seed, with a chance to rise as high as No. 2 should they win the Pac-12 tournament and other top teams falter.

Cronin’s to-do list included more than wins. He wanted his team to recharge earlier this week after a stretch of six games in 12 days in which it went 5-1. He wanted leading scorer Johnny Juzang to find his rhythm after a clunky four-for-13 shooting performance against USC in his return from a sprained right ankle. He wanted to scrutinize game footage to find his shooters better shots and put his defense in the best possible position to disrupt, all in hopes of recapturing that magic.

“If we want to do what we set out to do from the beginning of the season and sort of keep playing in the postseason,” senior guard Jules Bernard said, “then I know there’s going to be a lot of basketball to play, so I’m just definitely excited and ready to get started.”

For Cronin, whose 3-year-old racehorse is also set to run this spring, the same refrain works for both endeavors.

Go, baby, go, everyone is eager to see what Bruin Magic can do.