UCLA has found the season’s final weeks to be winning time under coach Mick Cronin

UCLA's Johnny Juzang celebrates after a play against Arizona during the first half.
UCLA’s Johnny Juzang (3) celebrates after a play against Arizona during the first half of the championship game of the Pac-12 tournament on Saturday in Las Vegas.
(John Locher / Associated Press)

David Singleton heaved halfcourt shots during UCLA’s open practice on the eve of the NCAA tournament. Big men Myles Johnson, Kenneth Nwuba and Mac Etienne held a three-point shooting contest even though none has tried one in a college game. Cody Riley executed a crossover dribble while sitting on his rump, eliciting wide-mouthed awe from teammate Jules Bernard.

Sure, why not? The Bruins can do whatever they want this time of year.

Two years ago, they emerged from the depths of mediocrity late in the season, winning nine of their last 11 games before only a pandemic could stop them.


Last year, they went from First Four to Final Four while becoming America’s sweetheart team.

They have sustained the tradition over the last month, winning eight of their last 10 games to revive their standing as a fashionable pick to get back to the Final Four.

“We don’t believe in giving in,” UCLA coach Mick Cronin recently told The Times before his fourth-seeded Bruins (25-7) prepared for their first-round game against 13th-seeded Akron (24-9) on Thursday evening at the Moda Center. “I think what helps too, what doesn’t break you makes you stronger.”

The UCLA Bruins enter the NCAA tournament battle tested after coping with an emergency flight landing, injuries, a COVID shutdown and other hurdles.

March 16, 2022

The challenges have been significant since Cronin’s arrival nearly three years ago. His first team was exceedingly young and needed practically the entire season to master the nuances of his defense. His second team lost senior guard Chris Smith in December and top interior defender Jalen Hill in February. This team has endured a decade’s worth of turmoil, persevering through a diverted plane, a scooter accident involving top scorer Johnny Juzang and a nearly monthlong COVID-19 layoff in addition to the usual injuries and illnesses.

The Bruins have pushed back with an undeniable edge, valuing every possession and remaining faithful to their defensive principles. Just like last year. And the year before that.

“I think it was just a group understanding of what was at stake,” said junior guard Jaime Jaquez Jr., a significant part of all three late-season surges. “We lose, we go home, and that’s the same thing going into our game” Thursday against the Zips.


These guys don’t like to lose. Not at basketball, Topgolf or Super Smash Bros., the debates about superiority raging on bus rides and in hotel rooms.

“That’s the big argument on our team right now,” Cronin said of the Nintendo game, “who is the best player at that.”

UCLA head coach Mick Cronin motions towards the court.
UCLA head coach Mick Cronin motions towards the court during the second half against USC in the semifinal round of the Pac-12 tournament on Friday in Las Vegas.
(John Locher / Associated Press)

UCLA has combined some humility with its hunger. As he spoke with the media Wednesday, Cronin wore a blue letterman’s jacket that was a replica of the one favored by John Wooden while winning 10 national championships with the Bruins. Cronin said his team needed to maintain its modesty even though it’s a 13½-point favorite in its NCAA tournament opener.

“To me, that’s why people stay focused whether it’s in business, in life, anything,” he said. “To me, the minute you lose that edge, you start to lose your humility, is when you’re not going to be at your best.”

Over the last few years, Cronin and his sleep-deprived staff have positioned the Bruins for late-season success through more than exhaustive scouting reports and adjustments that have included better defending the three-point line and making sure Jaquez was a central part of the offense. This season, the coaches have earned honorary medical degrees while navigating one injury after another.


Jaquez has had to play through two bad ankles. Defensive ace Jaylen Clark has absorbed multiple blows to the head. Riley was sidelined for nearly two months with a knee injury. Juzang hurt his hip after falling off the scooter and sprained an ankle. Point guard Tyger Campbell hurt his shoulder.

“Going back, I don’t think we had a game this year where everyone was 100%,” Jaquez said. “God bless that we are all healthy now.”

A condensed late-season schedule filled with makeup games only compounded the injury issues. UCLA played six games in 12 days in late February, prompting Cronin to sit out Riley for one game and limit Jaquez’s participation in practices. At one point, the team stopped holding practices between games, opting for video sessions that emphasized mental preparation.

It’s a similar arc to how Cronin approached this time of year even before arriving at UCLA, when he won the American Athletic Conference tournament championship in each of his last two seasons at Cincinnati.

“Mick has really mastered, in my opinion, because I’ve been with him a long time,” said assistant coach Darren Savino, who has worked under Cronin for 12 seasons, “how to rest physically and mentally, knowing and understanding that the postseason in March is the most important thing that everybody cares about, of course, and to get the team mentally and physically fresh for this time of year.”

College writers Ben Bolch, Ryan Kartje, J. Brady McCollough and Thuc Nhi Nguyen discuss USC and UCLA’s NCAA tournament keys to success and more.

March 15, 2022

These Bruins might be uniquely qualified for success compared to their recent predecessors because they have all five starters back from the Final Four team one season after having no NCAA tournament experience with the exception of Smith, who was sidelined with a knee injury. They also can beat teams in multiple ways, ranking No. 12 nationally in defensive efficiency, according to the metrics of basketball analyst Ken Pomeroy, while ranking No. 14 offensively. (For comparison’s sake, last season’s team finished No. 46 in defensive efficiency and No. 11 in offensive efficiency.)


It hasn’t been perfect. At times, UCLA’s offensive lulls have led to sagging energy on defense.

“We talked about it [Tuesday] night and we’ve been talking about it,” Savino said. “You can’t let your offensive woes or droughts affect your defense and when you’re playing these kind of games against these kind of teams, the other team is really good and you’ve got to expect that you’re going to go through a lull and you’ve got to respond, so that’s going to be key for us.”

The calendar portends better days ahead. This is the time of year when the Bruins seem to have all the answers.