December 1, 2021

DCTRS

Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

UCLA aims to flip the switch against Michigan State in NCAAs

What might go down as the strangest NCAA tournament appearance in UCLA basketball history started with a day of hotel lounging while stuck in quarantine, followed by a ride through the Indiana darkness.

Point guard Tyger Campbell played chess on his iPad and binge-watched YouTube before boarding a bus bound for Purdue’s Mackey Arena, site of the Bruins’ First Four game against Michigan State on Thursday night. By the time the team completed the 75-minute trip from Indianapolis, the statue of John Wooden outside the arena wasn’t much of an attraction.

“We got there,” UCLA coach Mick Cronin said Wednesday, recalling the events of the previous day, “and it was pitch-black.”

The 9 p.m. practice on the eve of UCLA’s 50th appearance in the NCAA tournament was devoid of the usual lighthearted fare. Fans weren’t allowed because of COVID-19 restrictions. Neither were cheerleaders nor the pep band.

Nobody was disappointed, the Bruins having persevered through six months of practices and games without a single positive coronavirus test to achieve the intended payoff. Besides, there was nothing to compare it to for a group of players who have never participated in an NCAA tournament besides injured senior Chris Smith.

“We went into it knowing it wasn’t going to be like the normal March Madness,” Campbell said, “but it’s been cool.”

As the practice stretched toward midnight, squeaking sneakers and a cacophony of voices providing the soundtrack, players and coaches shuffled alone underneath a Wooden banner hung in honor of the legendary Boilermakers guard who coached UCLA to a record 10 national championships.

Another banner being unfurled inside Pauley Pavilion this spring seems unlikely. Losers of four games in a row, the Bruins (17-9) were one of the final teams selected for the tournament and would need to win three games in five days just to reach a regional semifinal.

Cronin has spent part of the last week propping up his team’s confidence as well as making tweaks that could help the Bruins avert another collapse. UCLA could just as easily be entering the tournament on a long winning streak had it made some late free throws and avoided a few careless turnovers.

“We’ve caught some really tough breaks lately,” Cronin said, “and hopefully things are going to turn in our favor where we can win three in a row this week.”

UCLA players celebrate after guard Jaylen Clark, center, made a free throw to give the Bruins the lead in the final seconds against Arizona State on Feb. 20 at Pauley Pavilion. UCLA won 80-79.

(Ashley Landis / Associated Press)

Any deep run would start with a win over a team playing what might amount to a home game in Big Ten country. Michigan State (15-12) figures to have the bulk of a crowd capped at around 1,500 cheering for it. An exception might be the two Bruins fans given free tickets by UCLA athletic director Martin Jarmond after making a spirited plea on Twitter to be boisterous.

The Spartans have lost five straight games at Mackey Arena, last winning in 2014, but they’ve shown in recent weeks they’re capable of beating anyone. Victories over Illinois and Michigan, conference rivals who went on to earn No. 1 seeds in the NCAA tournament, revealed the team’s potential for an extended stay in the Indianapolis area.

The Bruins are painfully familiar with what it takes to beat the Spartans. After essentially playing Michigan State to a draw in the first half during the 2019 Maui Invitational, UCLA couldn’t match the Spartans’ toughness toward the end of a 75-62 setback that showed its deficiencies in resilience and transition defense.

Cronin and Michigan State counterpart Tom Izzo have spent the last few days exchanging tributes after reporters seized on Cronin’s once saying he wanted to model his program after the way Izzo has guided the Spartans to one national championship and seven more Final Fours.

Said Cronin: “Coach Izzo represents everything that’s good about college basketball. He has run his program the right way for a long time and I think he cares about the development of players as people before the basketball side of it.”

Said Izzo: “That’s the ultimate compliment of all, but he’s not taking no backseat now. It’s not like he’s a rookie. He’s been in this for a while too and he’s done a hell of a job at Cincinnati and a hell of a job there [at UCLA], so I think there is mutual respect.”

While the circumstances are less than ideal, this week represents another chance for Cronin to reverse the one knock on him as a college coach — that he’s great from November through early March, not so great once the conference tournament nets have been cut down. He’s gone 6-11 in the NCAA tournament at Cincinnati and Murray State, advancing to only one regional semifinal.

His NBA friends like to kid him about all the rings he’s accumulated for conference championships and other benchmarks in seasons that haven’t ended with a title.

“I kind of agree with their thinking,” said Cronin, who will be making his first NCAA tournament appearance with the Bruins after last season’s event was canceled. “Either you win it or you don’t.”

This will likely represent a first step rather than an arrival, the Bruins just starting to find their postseason footing under Cronin before more talented reinforcements arrive to gird a limited roster.

It will also serve as a reminder that only championships are celebrated at UCLA. That continues to be the case even when players are confined to single rooms on a dedicated floor with a security guard standing sentry at the hotel entrance, nodding as they walk past for a bus ride deep into the night.