It is glamorously called, “The Road to the Final Four,” but on the day UCLA received its coordinates, it was surely struck with a gritty realization.
They weren’t exactly placed on a road. They were placed on a narrow, winding stretch of mud and rocks. They were placed on a potholed path seemingly headed directly into a ditch.
There’s Boise State. There’s Gonzaga. There’s — gasp — Kansas.
In the NCAA men’s basketball tournament pairings announced Sunday, the Bruins were placed in the toughest region against some of the toughest teams and must compete without potentially two of their toughest players.
USC is seeded eighth after early prediction of ninth-place finish in Pac-12 and will face No. 9 South Dakota State in the NCAA tournament opener.
In other words, they were placed right in Coach Mick Cronin’s wheelhouse.
This is going to be difficult, it could get ugly, and he and his Bruins cannot wait.
“We try to create a no excuses culture,” Cronin told reporters Sunday afternoon. “I try to teach them that about their life too. If you have the toughness, and the willingness to put in the work, you can get where you want to go.”
Where they want to go suddenly seems a long way from here, with defensive leader Jaylen Clark seemingly out for the season with a lower leg injury and big man Adem Bona nursing a sore shoulder, but Cronin was unmoved.
“You know, there’s a way to win a game,” he said. “There’s always a way to win a game, no matter if Jaylen Clark’s out, Adem’s out, God forbid somebody else is. There’s always a way to win a game. It may not be as easy, your margin for error may not be as great. But there’s still a way to win the game if you’re willing to be tough enough to do it. And these guys are, because they want to win. That’s what they’re about.”
Yes, in the wake of Sunday’s announcement, the Bruins can celebrate that they were a No. 2 seed in the West Region. Indeed, they can play the first two rounds in Sacramento, and if they’re still alive, they would play the next two rounds in Las Vegas, and that’s all a wonderful thing.
But have you checked out who they could be playing? Have you wondered how they are going to survive the combination of bruising matchups and missing players?
UCLA seemingly ran the gantlet two seasons ago when they fought their way to the Final Four from the starting position of an 11th-seed in a play-in game.
The truth is, they’re going to have to do something like that again. Playing without Clark and with a hampered Bona, the Bruins are going to have to navigate this “road” with every bit of gumption that Cronin can summon.
Again, the last-dance combo of Jaime Jaquez Jr. and Tyger Campbell and David Singleton cannot wait.
“I know us three have had a lot of conversations about this being our last year together and just embracing it,” Jaquez told reporters. “This is one final chance to make something happen, our backs are against the wall right now, we feel like, but we’re embracing it, we take everything that comes with it.”
First up, North Carolina Asheville , a 15th seed with a 140 NET ranking and yet a team that could at least startle. The Bulldogs have won 18 of their last 19 games and they can take advantage of Bona’s limitations with one of the nation’s best big men, Drew Pember, a 6-foot-10 senior who averages 21 points and nine rebounds a game.
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“We know that you can’t take anything for granted,” said Singleton. “We have to put 100% effort throughout every game of this tournament starting with UNC Asheville.”
Next up, it says here that Boise State beats Northwestern and brings the Bruins their 29 NET ranking with wins against Texas A&M, Washington State and Colorado. The Broncos are also led by the sort of senior-guard combination that wins in March with Marcus Shaver Jr. and Max Rice.
“We’ve got to make sure … our gas tank is ready to go,” said Cronin.
The Bruins can and should survive those first two games, but it could be dangerous, and their reward could be downright deflating. Waiting for them in Las Vegas could be an old nemesis and a defending champion.
Do they really want to play Gonzaga again? Especially now? The Bulldogs have a NET ranking of six and their only three losses since late November have been by one point or in overtime. They are led by 6-10 forward Drew Timme, who has seemingly been in college for the last decade.
This is the year that, for once, nobody has really paid attention to Gonzaga. It would figure that this could be the year the Bulldogs finally win a national championship.
You know who else could win a national title, becoming only the third repeat champion in 50 years? Kansas is back and, despite being blown out in the Big 12 tournament championship game against Texas with its coach Bill Self in the hospital, it’s still Kansas.
The Jayhawks played the country’s toughest schedule, led the country with 17 Quad 1 wins, and are sparked by experienced Jalen Wilson and Dajuan Harris Jr.
If nothing else, if they reach the glitzy Las Vegas region, the Bruins can draw from their sweat-stained experience there this weekend in the Pac-12 Tournament.
They came within a missed free throw and missed wide-open three-point attempt from defeating No. 8 Arizona in Saturday night’s championship game despite having four key players on the bench. They were missing not only Clark and Bona, but also their other two big men, Mac Etienne and Kenneth Nwuba, both of whom fouled out.
The relentless foursome of Jaquez Jr., Campbell, Singleton and freshman Amari Bailey nearly beat the massive and talented Wildcats by themselves. Survival over the next three weeks will require every bit of that effort and more.
“We got to have a short memory, get better, figure out things we need to do, look at the film, and go from there,” said Jaquez.
Another Los Angeles team will join them in the madness, that being USC. Despite their listless loss to Arizona State in the Pac-12 tournament, the Trojans climbed into the tournament as a No. 10 seed in the East, but they’re not expected to last long.
If they can beat tournament guru Tom Izzo and Michigan State in the first round — a possibility if Drew Peterson’s back loosens up — then they must face mighty No. 2 seed Marquette, a team that many have picked to reach the title weekend.
For both locals, “The Road To The Final Four” should be nothing short of a curving, careening adventure.
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