There was drama, there were upsets, there were unexpected heroes during UCLA’s run from the First Four to the Final Four last season.
It could have been a lunatic asylum in Tiger Campbell’s room on the ninth floor of the Indianapolis Marriott Downtown. It was the nightly camp site where the Bruins played each other in Super Smash Bros. marathon sessions. after being given Nintendo switches during an NCAA tournament.
“Very loud, very noisy,” said security guard Jaime Hakes Jr. “There was almost more competition than there was on the court.”
The battles progressed to the not-so-friendly Topgolf round, where Hakes and his teammate Johnny Juzang claimed superiority over the other – and continued to do so six months later.
Hakes said recently: “You know, there is no controversy here. I won. Whatever he says is not true. “
Juzan replied, “It wasn’t even close. I knocked him down.
No one on this team will admit defeat. Not after 11 points behind Michigan at halftime. Not against the chosen one Brigham Young. Not against Alabama, seeded second and its fast defenders, or Michigan, seeded first, and its outstanding line-up. What many expected was a multi-night stay that ended up earning many Marriott points.
When it was over, Gonzaga’s 40-foot miracle shot bounced off the backboard and over the net, the season ended, but the recognition of what had happened only intensified. Before leaving the court at Lucas Oil Stadium, the Bruins huddled together with their arms around their shoulders and shared their pride and love for each other.
“It was a great moment,” Juzan said. “It doesn’t often happen when all the guys play for each other, leaving everything as it is. In that spirit of camaraderie, you need to be special. “
It was so special that no one denied it. Juzang and Hakes dropped out of the NBA draft for another college season. Third-party contributors who might have entered the translation portal happily stayed.
Every player in the NCAA Bruins is returning for a season that kicks off Tuesday at Paulie’s Pavilion against Cal State Bakersfield, making what happens over the next six months less of an epilogue than a final chapter. For the team that conquered the city, if not the country, there could be more March magic.
“It’s like a feedback loop,” Juzan said. “You want this to continue.”
One thing that UCLA is reluctant to repeat is his role as a brave outsider. The Bruins are ranked # 2 in the country and are overwhelmingly in favor of winning the Pac-12 conference, and also become a fashion player who won the school’s first national championship since 1995.
Their status upgrade is due not only to those who returned, but also to those who arrived to join in the fun. Freshman quarterback Peyton Watson demonstrated with a crossover dribble, followed by a monstrous dunk during the Bruins show last week, that he will often be the hottest player on the court. Highly skilled transfer center Miles Johnson and his massive arms are so talented at capturing the ball that it seems like he can hit the ball per minute on average.
“These two guys,” Coach Mick Cronin said, “really took us to the next level.”
There seems to be an almost zero chance that any of the rookies will break the team’s hard-won chemistry. Watson’s first action when entering the training area is to look for teammates and shake hands. Johnson is 6’10, so accommodating that when he played with Rutgers, his teammates had to challenge him to be more aggressive.
And don’t worry about his nickname Miles the Monster.
“A lot of people call me a gentle giant,” Johnson said, “so the monster definitely looks like a furry monster.”
One possible violation looms. With Watson, Johnson and sophomore Jaylen Clarke on the same roster as the starting players who secured the Bruins’ Final Four, the team has at least eight players worthy of a starting role.
One solution could be a line-up rotation based on matches, which Cronin says he is pondering. Another option is to play faster, putting more pressure on the defense, which takes extra minutes for the players leaving the bench.
“Look,” said Cronin, whose team speeded up the pace noticeably on the way to 100 points during the show, “we’re going to have a bunch of guys who just agree that I can only start with five guys and that everyone will go. play.”
This extensive experience has its advantages. Assistant coach Rod Palmer said Cronin is already at the end of the season, teaching the finer points of his defense. This is the side of the ball where the Bruins are most in need of improvement after finishing 11th in national offensive efficiency rankings by Ken Pomeroy last season, while being only 46th in defensive efficiency. …
A master of the mantra, Cronin created a new one to help his veterans maintain their edge: experience doesn’t matter if you make rookie mistakes.
“We need to know what wins, we need to know what works, and we know that we all need to be on the same page to give ourselves a chance — that doesn’t guarantee victory,” Cronin said. “So our challenge is to make sure that, in addition to staying healthy, the most important thing is to make sure we play with one accord.”
Juzang has to cover it. Before every NCAA UCLA tournament game, the attacking quarterback told his teammates that nothing could be guaranteed other than their effort and willingness to take on the challenge.
“The postseason setup is win or go home,” Juzan said, “and luckily we have competitive, tough guys, so we didn’t want to go home.”
These victories sparked some quiet admiration at the team hotel after the Bruins advanced to their first Final Four since 2008. The players gathered in the room and looked at each other, no one spoke a word, their faces spoke everything.
“We thought, ‘Wow, we did it … we’re going forward,’ said security guard David Singleton. “So maybe the best memory is to just appreciate each other in those moments, because those moments don’t come back.”
You just need to create new ones.