All that stands between UCLA and the Sweet 16 is a Cinderella ready to steal the show

Ben Bolch
·4 min read
BYU guard Brandon Averette (4) battles for the ball with UCLA guard Jaime Jaquez Jr., right, as UCLA guard Jules Bernard (1) closes in during the first half of a first-round game in the NCAA college basketball tournament at Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, Saturday, March 20, 2021. (AP Photo/AJ Mast)
UCLA guards Jules Bernard (1) and Jaime Jaquez Jr. battle BYU center Richard Harward for a loose ball on Saturday in a first-round game of the NCAA tournament. (AJ Mast / Associated Press)

Chris Smith sauntered toward the giant bracket, head nodding, shoulders swaying, intentions known to everybody around him.

He had performed the same ritual two nights earlier inside the lobby of UCLA’s hotel.

After the Bruins’ first victory in the NCAA tournament, the injured senior guard gently placed a white sticker bearing his team’s name in black onto the next round of the bracket, running his fingers over the material to make sure it remained in place.

This time, after the Bruins won again late Saturday night, he slapped another sticker into place as if trumpeting the return of a champion.

Don’t you know who we are? We’re UCLA!

The swagger is back, the momentum theirs, the glory burbling back to the surface for the program with the most national titles in the history of college basketball.

Two nights after grinding its way to a comeback victory over Michigan State in overtime, UCLA manhandled Brigham Young by double digits. The 11th-seeded Bruins (19-9) were the first team with two wins in the NCAA tournament and finally will be favored Monday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse when they face 14th-seeded Abilene Christian (24-4) in the second round.

While most of the nation might pull for the team few have heard of in a tournament rife with upsets, the Bruins don’t care.

After more than a decade without an appearance in the Final Four, UCLA finds itself on the precipice of both personal redemption and the continued restoration of a tarnished brand.

A victory over the Wildcats would give Bruins coach Mick Cronin, saddled with doubts about his losing record in the NCAA tournament, three wins in a single trip to college basketball’s biggest stage for the first time.

It also would give UCLA its first regional semifinal appearance since 2017 while reminding the Bruins there are more mileposts to go before reaching their intended destination.

UCLA could become the fifth team to advance to the tournament’s second weekend after playing in a dreaded First Four play-in game, hoping to replicate Virginia Commonwealth’s singular goosebump run to the Final Four in 2011.

“For us,” Cronin said Sunday, “you got to want more.”

Standing in UCLA’s way will be a team that could steal its joy — not to mention the ball — after upsetting in-state rival Texas on Saturday. The Wildcats forced 23 turnovers during a 53-52 victory over the third-seeded Longhorns, snatching the final inbounds pass as the Bruins watched on television inside their Hinkle Fieldhouse locker room.

“They're going to take it from you," Cronin said of the Wildcats. “It’s not if, it's when.”

Abilene Christian leads the nation in forcing turnovers, taking the ball away on 27% of its opponents’ possessions by speeding up ballhandlers and forcing them into bad decisions. For those who aren’t great in math, that means the Wildcats end up with the ball on more than one out of every four trips down the court by their counterparts.

A reporter suggesting that Abilene Christian was a good defensive team quickly was corrected.

“No,” Cronin responded, “they’re great.”

Cronin half-jokingly said he hoped his team didn’t have four turnovers by the first television timeout, roughly four minutes into the game.

If it’s any comfort, the Bruins committed only four turnovers against Brigham Young and have been one of the nation’s better teams when it comes to holding onto the ball, turning it over on 16.2% of their possessions, according to basketball analyst Ken Pomeroy. That ranks No. 41 nationally.

If his team can limit turnovers to fewer than 15, Cronin said, it probably will win.

Amplifying the challenge will be UCLA’s wobbly legged conundrum — the Bruins will be the only team in the tournament playing for the third time in five days.

Cronin said his team would only watch game footage and conduct a walk-through Sunday to preserve players’ bodies. The coach acknowledged the fatigue issue might be overblown by noting that his players had logged far more games over a single weekend on the club circuit while in high school.

Having poured its soul into its last two games, UCLA had more to fear than sore calves.

“Getting their emotional gas tank back to where it’s full,” Cronin said, “is my biggest concern more so than the [number of] games.”

As his jubilant players bounded toward the locker room Saturday night, Cronin told them to keep it down. There was more noise to make for a team that’s starting to find its postseason footing.

“You want the kids to have fun,” Cronin said, “but you don’t want them to let all their adrenaline and emotion out.”

Not, at least, until Smith has slapped a few more stickers on the board.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.