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It was the new UCLA basketball coach’s first trip to VIP’s, the Tarzana café that Wooden frequented for many years before his death. Cronin had recently purchased a home in nearby Encino and was eager to pay homage to his legendary predecessor while scarfing down some breakfast.
One booth opened immediately among the sea of diners, allowing Cronin and his father to take a seat once the wood laminate table had been wiped clean. Cronin introduced himself to the waiter, noticing all the Wooden photos and memorabilia hung above Table No. 2.
Yeah, the waiter confirmed. This is where “Coach” used to sit.
“I looked at my dad and I was like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ ” Cronin remembered earlier this week. “Like, I guess this was supposed to happen.”
A year and a half later, what feels like destiny continues to wrap Cronin in a warm embrace. His supposedly overmatched team has written the most endearing and enduring story of the NCAA tournament, the Bruins becoming only the second participant in a First Four game to reach the Final Four.
They have done it while taking another magical history tour of Wooden haunts in his home state. What started on a frigid night at Purdue’s Mackey Arena, on the campus of Wooden’s alma mater, continued two days later inside Hinkle Fieldhouse, where Wooden once played while in high school.
Sandwiched between the two other venues the Bruins have inhabited in downtown Indianapolis is a bronze statue of Wooden crouching during a game, clutching his indispensable rolled-up program in one hand.
“Unbelievable,” Cronin said, having reached his first Final Four only a short walk away. “It’s awesome.”
UCLA will return to Lucas Oil Stadium on Saturday night once more as a massive underdog despite its championship pedigree. If things go as widely predicted, the 11th-seeded Bruins (22-9) might feel like a toy poodle futilely yapping at the mighty Gonzaga Bulldogs (30-0), top-seeded, top-ranked and on the verge of becoming the first college team to possibly top off an unbeaten season since Indiana in 1976.
None of the metrics favors UCLA moving any closer to a 12th national championship and first since 1995.
The 14-point spread favoring Gonzaga is among the biggest in Final Four history. The Bulldogs are averaging a nation-leading 91.6 points per game and have bulldozed their way through the NCAA tournament, winning each game by an average of 24 points. They dismantled USC, a trendy pick to end their season, in the opening minutes of an 85-66 rout in the West Regional Final.
Even having guided his team to more NCAA tournament wins than any other coach this season, his 5-0 record including upsets of second-seeded Alabama and top-seeded Michigan, Cronin warily acknowledged what feels like an unprecedented challenge in front of him.
“I love nothing about playing Gonzaga,” he said.
It’s a team that could place three starters in the first round of the 2021 NBA draft, forcing Cronin to divvy his attention between guard Jalen Suggs and forwards Drew Timme and Corey Kispert. Unlike NBA teams featuring the world’s best players, where one can easily decipher LeBron James as the best Laker or Kawhi Leonard as the best Clipper, Gonzaga has left Cronin unable to decide on a top Bulldog.
“One game it’s Timme, then it’s Kispert,” Cronin said, “and then you start thinking, well, the reason everybody’s open is with Suggs’ dissection and he puts so much pressure on you with his penetration. You know, they’re a great team, they’re undefeated for a reason.”
Cronin had slept just two hours one night earlier in the week when he took a reporter’s call. His phone contained 670 unopened text messages the day after the Bruins beat Michigan to reach their first Final Four since 2008, and the coach was not about to start weeding through all the congratulations when there was so much work to do.
Besides, it would be an insult to Tom Izzo. The veteran Michigan State coach had given his counterpart a mandate about the mountain of preparation needed to complete a deep tournament run after Cronin’s Bruins rallied to beat the Spartans in overtime in the First Four.
“Your ass better not go to sleep,” Izzo told him.
The lights have rarely been out in Cronin’s room since he arrived on the ninth floor of the Marriott, the coach understanding he needed to do more than exchange Z’s for X’s and O’s. He became a cheerleader before the tournament opener, boosting his team’s confidence in the wake of four consecutive losses.
After Michigan State forged a 14-point in the first half of that opening game, Cronin and his assistants scrapped their passive defensive plan in favor of an all-out assault that triggered the comeback. Other adjustments have been more subtle, such as taking away corner three-pointers or setting screens to get Hunter Dickinson, Michigan’s 7-foot-1 center, switched onto diminutive point guard Tyger Campbell.
“He always puts us in the right position,” said UCLA guard Johnny Juzang, the tournament’s leading scorer. “We’ve just got to go out and execute.”
Even the best of plans tend to crumble against Gonzaga. Cronin said the Bulldogs generate more layups than any college team he’s ever seen thanks to ball movement that reminds him of the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs when they were winning NBA titles.
The Bruins can tout their own superlatives, including a tournament record that’s the best of any team, never mind that it came thanks to players all making their postseason debuts.
“These guys, they think this is easy,” Cronin said with a laugh. “You just go to the tournament, you go to UCLA, you go to the Final Four.”
Sometimes, things just have a way of working out, an unexpected opening leading you exactly where you’re meant to be.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.