There’s a familiar feel to it all, the way every shot is contested, every driving lane cut off, every open player no longer open by the time a pass arrives.
UCLA is making its opponents feel like they’re stuck in mud again, just like it did at the end of last season. Gritting their way to one win after another, those Bruins were the talk of college basketball in March 2020 before COVID-19 halted the season and silenced chatter about an NCAA tournament run.
A year later, they’re back to creating a buzz thanks in large part to a halftime rant. With his team trailing Michigan State by 11 points in a First Four game, handing out open shots like cheap fan freebies, Mick Cronin delivered a high-volume message inside the Mackey Arena locker room.
“If you guys really want it,” Cronin told his players, “you’re going to have to defend.”
The Bruins did just that, gumming things up for the Spartans in the second half and overtime of a wild comeback victory. They sustained that approach while stifling Brigham Young two days later in the first round and held Abilene Christian scoreless for more than nine minutes in a second-round rout.
Along the way, they developed a postseason mantra.
“Our defense,” junior guard Jules Bernard said, “is the reason why we’re going to survive in the tournament.”
Short of making nearly every shot it takes, 11th-seeded UCLA will have to make its defense the basis for any upset of second-seeded Alabama on Sunday at Hinkle Fieldhouse in an East Region semifinal. It has taken a quantum leap in only three games, the Bruins’ adjusted defensive efficiency going from No. 86 nationally to No. 63 in the metrics of basketball analyst Ken Pomeroy.
It will have to get even better against the Crimson Tide (26-6) for the Bruins (20-9) to reach their first regional final since 2008, when they advanced to the last of three consecutive Final Fours and appeared on the verge of another blue-and-gold dynasty.
Alabama’s high-flying, shot-hoisting offense creates more headaches than a jackhammer. The Crimson Tide have taken more three-pointers (961) and made more shots from beyond the arc (341) than anyone else in the nation this season as a result of what Cronin described as the college basketball equivalent of a spread offense.
“Just think about football,” Cronin said. “Great offenses make you defend the whole field.”
To help with spacing, Alabama coach Nate Oats taped a four-point line three feet beyond the three-point line onto the practice court so that his players could learn to catch the ball behind the former and step into shooting it behind the latter.
Making Alabama’s approach all the more dangerous is that it generates many of its three-pointers off offensive rebounds, a rarity for teams that live beyond the arc. The Crimson Tide snagged 15 offensive rebounds in the second round against Maryland, leading to 23 second-chance points during a runaway 96-77 victory.
“Where they really kill you is when they do miss, they get it and turn and throw it back out and make it,” Cronin said. “That’s how they can get on their runs. They’ve had some games where they’ve had some massive runs on people.”
Alabama also likes to play in a hurry, its average possession length of 14.2 seconds ranking No. 3 nationally and making this matchup seem like something out of "Aesop’s Fables" given that UCLA’s tortoise-like average possession length of 18.8 seconds ranks No. 309 nationally.
As if the Bruins didn’t have enough worries, Alabama also touts one of the nation’s best defenses and benches, with super subs Jahvon Quinerly and Alex Reese helping the Crimson Tide’s second unit outscore its counterparts, 62-17, in two NCAA tournament games.
“Very rarely,” Cronin said, “do you go to the bench and get better as a team.”
So, to review, UCLA will need to run the Crimson Tide off the three-point line, clog driving lanes, watch kick-outs, rip away rebounds, dictate tempo and avoid turnovers that could negate their efforts in every other endeavor.
At least the Bruins possess a defense that’s been on the rise even without Chris Smith (knee) and Jalen Hill (personal issues), the team’s two most bouncy defenders. Beyond unleashing more active hands and ramping up its ball pressure, the defense has also reflected its fiery coach.
“Just being more intense,” Bernard said.
After six months of swabs being stuck up noses, of being confined to single rooms, of spacing out inside its own locker room, it’s the Bruins who need to make things uncomfortable to sustain their season.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.