UCLA should not be celebrating but they are. The Bruins were not supposed to be able to wade through the madness of the NCAA Tournament as a play-in team and make it to the Final Four.
The third-place team in the Pac-12 Conference was not expected to start chopping wood as the No. 11 seed in their bracket and pull off winning five games in a row, including knocking off No. 2 Alabama and handing No. 1 Michigan a heartbreaking defeat in the final Elite Eight matchup.
“They played extremely, extremely hard,” Michigan guard Eli Brooks said in a postgame press conference after the Bruins defeated the Wolverines, 51-49. “They earned that win. We’re not going to take anything away from them. But they made everything challenging, yeah.”
UCLA making things tough? Who would have thought? No, not these Bruins. Not especially after UCLA ended the regular season dropping its last four conference games. There was no senior like Chris Smith to bail out the Bruins in crunch time. The Bruins lost Smith early in the season to an ACL injury. There has been no Jalen Hill to provide backup.
UCLA making this deep run into the tournament has raised a lot of eyebrows and has surprised people. Mick Cronin, the second-year head coach of the Bruins, didn’t even see Final Four in his playbook.
“You know, look, we lost, when we lost Daishen Nix to the G League, and then you lose Chris Smith and Jalen Hill, if I had told you those three — the guys that follow us every day, if I had told you guys last May when we were all in lockdown, you guys would have said, ‘You’re not making the NCAA tournament,'” Cronin said after the game. “Nobody would have said you’re going to the Final Four, let’s be honest.
“Now, quietly, when we had those three guys, quietly I told my dad, I’ve got a chance to have my best team ever, after Johnny committed to us,” Cronin continued. “When Johnny signed and got cleared to play this year, and then you had Tyger and Chris Smith and Johnny and all these guys and Jalen Hill is on the team, you’ve got experience and you’ve got athleticism. But without those three guys, hell, no.”
The fact that UCLA has made this great postseason run is a testament to Cronin and the depth of the Bruins. But on a night when the defense was at a premium, the Bruins needed somebody to step up their game and make shots. That somebody was sophomore Johnny Juzang. Juzang scored 28 of the Bruins’ 51 points in 37 minutes of action.
“Juzang, he had a very good game, but every shot or every point that he got, he worked hard for it,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said. “Our guys, different guys that was guarding him, was making everything tough. There were some shots that he made, which was a runner, I recall in the first half. It was very challenging, difficult, but he was capable of getting it in. You know, other guys like Bernard, Jaquez, which are very good offensive players, they also shoot the ball extremely well. It wasn’t their night but Juzang had it going.”
What Juzang was able to do against Michigan does not come as a shock. After all, Juzang has already been used to playing in the limelight. The 6-foot-6 shooting guard transferred from Kentucky following his freshman season playing for the Wildcats. Juzang received a waiver clearing him to play immediately for Cronin and the Bruins.
Without Smith, Hill, and Nix, Juzang has been that go-to player for UCLA, averaging just over 15 points a game. He exploded against the Wolverines when the Bruins were in desperate need of somebody to put the ball through the basket. Guard Tyger Campbell (11 points) is the only other UCLA player to score in double-figures against Michigan.
It goes without saying that without Juzang unloading his offensive repertoire against Michigan and in general during the tournament, the Bruins would have been sent home packing a long time ago.
“I knew for us to get here, I was going to have to let him play through — play through things and teach him shot selection,” Cronin said. “What I tried to teach him is that — what he did tonight. He’s got 11 baskets but only two threes. So he’s more of a scorer than a shooter, and I think that’s what he got labeled at Kentucky and I wanted him to get rid of that mindset. We really worked hard on his mid-range and him going to the basket. You know, but he’s grown immensely…I knew for us to evolve, he was the guy that was going to have to evolve for us.”
From an outside perspective, Juzang coming to UCLA looked like a move that did not make a whole lot of sense. Before he arrived in Westwood, Cronin earned a reputation as being a tough, defensive-minded coach while at Cincinnati and Murray State. That would seem to be the contrary opposite to a scorer like Juzang. But that didn’t bother him, Juzang said.
“Not all, man. First, there’s just something unexplainable,” Juzang said. “I just felt something about Coach, just such a genuine guy, and it was first — something it was just intuition and I just felt it. I felt that he was just genuine, so that was the first thing. His reputation, I had no second thoughts. It is also what drew — I knew that he was hard. I knew that he was intense. I knew that he was defensive-minded, and those are things that drew me, I wanted that. I wanted to be pushed.”
Cronin’s pushing and prodding of Juzang came out in full display against Michigan. Juzang was pretty much unstoppable against the Wolverines, hitting one tough shot after another. To him, Juzang said his approach to the game was the same as it has always been.
“Just approached it like another game,” Juzang said. “We’ve been super locked-in to this tournament. You don’t want to — as a player, you don’t like add pressure to yourself. I know the whole team was just worried about we’re going to leave it out there on the floor and we’re going to give it everything we’ve got. I mean, the shot just happened to go in and teammates are finding me. I wouldn’t say anything different.”
Featured Image: INDIANAPOLIS, IN – MARCH 30: Johnny Juzang #3 of the UCLA Bruins drives in on Chaundee Brown #15 of the Michigan Wolverines in the Elite Eight round of the 2021 NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament held at Lucas Oil Stadium on March 30, 2021 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Jamie Schwaberow/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)