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UCLA has found the final weeks of the season to be a winning time

David Singleton heaved half-court shots during UCLA open practice on the eve of the NCAA tournament. Big men Myles Johnson, Kenneth Nwuba and Mac Etienne held a three-point shooting contest, although neither had attempted one in a college game. Cody Riley performed a crossover dribble while sitting on his rump, drawing great awe from teammate Jules Bernard.

Sure, why not? The Bruins can do whatever they want this time of year.

Two years ago, they emerged from the depths of mediocrity late in the season, winning nine of their last 11 games before just a pandemic could stop them.

Last year, they advanced from the First Four to the Final Four and became America’s sweetheart team.

They’ve continued that tradition over the past month, winning eight of their last 10 games to rekindle their reputation as the fashionable choice to return to the Final Four.

“We don’t believe in giving up,” UCLA coach Mick Cronin recently told The Times ahead of his fourth-seeded Bruins (25-7) preparing for their first-round game against 13th-seeded Akron (24-9) Thursday night at the Moda- Center. “I think whatever helps, whatever doesn’t break you, makes you stronger.”

The challenges have been significant since Cronin’s arrival nearly three years ago. His first team was exceedingly young and it took practically the whole season to master the nuances of his defense. His second team lost senior guard Chris Smith in December and top central defender Jalen Hill in February. This team has weathered a decade of turbulence, surviving a diverted plane, a scooter accident involving top scorer Johnny Juzang and a nearly month-long COVID-19 layoff, alongside the usual injuries and illnesses.

The Bruins pushed back with an undeniable advantage, valuing every possession and staying true to their defensive principles. Just like last year. And the year before that.

“I think it was just a group understanding of what was at stake,” said junior guard Jaime Jaquez Jr., a significant part of all three late-season surges. “We lose, we go home and that’s the same thing that goes into our game against the Zips on Thursday.

These guys don’t like to lose. Not in basketball, top golf, or Super Smash Bros., the dominance debates that rage on bus rides and in hotel rooms.

“That’s the big fight on our team right now,” Cronin said of the Nintendo game, “who’s the best player in it.”

UCLA head coach Mick Cronin moves to court.

UCLA head coach Mick Cronin moves onto court during the second half against USC in the semifinals of Friday’s Pac-12 tournament in Las Vegas.

(John Locher/Associated Press)

UCLA has combined some humility with their hunger. Speaking to the media on Wednesday, Cronin was wearing a blue Letterman jacket, a replica of the one worn by John Wooden when he won 10 national championships with the Bruins. Cronin said his team needs to keep their modesty despite being a 13½-point favorite in the NCAA tournament opener.

“To me, that’s why people stay focused, whether it’s in business, in life, or anything,” he said. “For me, the minute you lose that advantage, you start to lose your humility, that’s when you’re not going to be at your best.”

In recent years, Cronin and his sleepless associates have guided the Bruins through more than exhaustive scouting reports and adjustments, including better defense of the three-point line and ensuring Jaquez was a central part of the Bruins’ success in the late season positioned offense. This season, coaches have earned honorary medical degrees while surviving injury after injury.

Jaquez had to play through two bad ankles. Defensive ace Jaylen Clark caught several hits to the head. Riley was sidelined for almost two months with a knee injury. Juzang injured his hip and sprained his ankle after falling off a scooter. Point guard Tyger Campbell injured his shoulder.

“Looking back, I don’t think we had a game this year where everyone was 100%,” Jaquez said. “God bless us that we are all healthy now.”

A shortened postseason schedule full of make-up games only exacerbated injury woes. UCLA played six games in 12 days in late February, leading Cronin to sit out Riley for one game and limit Jaquez’s participation in practice. At one point, the team stopped practicing between games, opting for video sessions that emphasized mental preparation.

It’s a similar arc to how Cronin has approached this season, even before he came to UCLA, as he won the American Athletic Conference Tournament Championship in each of his last two seasons at Cincinnati.

“Mick really mastered it, I think, because I’ve been with him a long time,” said assistant coach Darren Savino, who has worked under Cronin for twelve seasons, “how to rest physically and mentally when you know and understand that Off-season in March is obviously the main thing everyone is looking after and getting the team mentally and physically fresh for this time of year.”

These Bruins may be uniquely qualified for success compared to their recent predecessors, having all five starters back from the Final Four team a season after not having NCAA tournament experience, with the exception of Smith, who has one Knee injury had to pause. They can also beat teams in a variety of ways, ranking 12th nationally in defensive efficiency while ranking 14th on offense, according to basketball analyst Ken Pomeroy’s metrics. (For comparison, last season’s team ranked 46th in defensive efficiency and 11th in offensive efficiency.)

It wasn’t perfect. At times, UCLA’s offensive breaks have caused the energy on defense to slack.

“We talked about it [Tuesday] night and we talked about it,” Savino said. “You can’t let your offensive problems or droughts affect your defense and when you play these types of games against these types of teams, the other team is really good and you have to expect that you’re going to go through a break and You have to react, so that will be the key for us.

The calendar announces better days. This is the time of year when the Bruins seem to have all the answers.

https://www.latimes.com/sports/ucla/story/2022-03-17/ucla-found-seasons-final-weeks-to-be-winning-time-under-coach-mick-cronin UCLA has found the final weeks of the season to be a winning time

Andrew Schnitker

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