No Furman here. No Princeton here. No late craziness or shocking weirdness or shining momentousness here.
No Cinderella, only smashing pumpkins.
UCLA was not going to lose its NCAA first-round tournament game to 18-point underdog North Carolina Asheville at the Golden 1 Center on Thursday night.
No way. No how. Not for all the madness in the world. This was evident in the first three minutes, which went roughly as follows:
UCLA layup. Asheville brick. UCLA two free throws. Asheville brick. UCLA trey. Asheville brick. UCLA dunk. Asheville brick. UCLA dunk. Asheville turnover. UCLA trey.
By the time the horribly overmatched Bulldogs could catch their breath, UCLA led 14-0, and it was over. A couple of hours later the final score was 86-53, and the final message was one that should resonate through this maddening March landscape.
UCLA is not messing around.
UCLA is not going to be Arizona or Virginia, two respected teams that fell in giant first-day upsets. UCLA is not taking their No. 2 seeding for granted. UCLA is beginning their march to the Final Four in a sprint. Their next stop on this treacherous journey is Saturday here in the second round against resurgent Northwestern, a team that also took its first round seriously with a strong win over Boise State.
Judging from Thursday night’s intensity and focus, keep betting the Bruins.
From the moment UCLA lost to Arizona last weekend in the Pac-12 tournament championship game, UCLA coach Mick Cronin knew it was on.
“They ran into a buzz saw tonight,” said Cronin. “We don’t take losing well at UCLA … we spell fun w-i-n and we lost our last game and these guys took it personal and you saw how we came out.”
Asheville seemed like a decent team. They had won 18 of their last 19 games, they were Big South champions, they had a couple of premier players …
And UCLA made them look like a dazed high school squad that wandered into the wrong gym.
“I was extremely flustered at the beginning of the game,” acknowledged Asheville star Drew Pember. “I had no idea what it was going to be like.”
It was like, relentless. It was like, overwhelming. It was like, UCLA wearing its Cronin best. “Our defensive intensity and our deflections early in the game, I think, really rattled them,” said Cronin. “They could never really get comfortable.”
The Bruins defense forced the Bulldogs into numerous clanking shots, wild airballs, wayward passes and mass confusion. And the Bruins did it without their giant stopper, Adem Bona, who was cleared to play but kept on the bench while he continues to recover from a shoulder injury. They also didn’t suffer from the absence of Jaylen Clark, their defensive leader who is out for the season with an Achilles injury.
They’ll surely miss Clark later. Bona is going to have to eventually play if they want to advance. But for now, the Bruins’ veteran savvy and unflinching mindset seems more powerful than any one player.
“We try to get the young guys to … understand that this is one-and-out tournament and we don’t want this to end,” said Jaime Jaquez Jr., one of Bruins’ three veteran leaders.
The NCAA tournament is famous for its first-round upsets, but more telling is its first-round blowouts. One can tell if a good team is ready for greatness by how they handle their business in their opening game against an inferior opponent.
Teams that seriously contend for championships often begin their journey with a rout. Judging from Thursday night, UCLA looks like one of those teams, just check out the performance of those three senior spark plugs.
Jaquez was the cool leader with 17 points. Campbell was at his playmaking best with 10 assists. And David Singleton, after going scoreless in the Pac-12 tournament championship game against Arizona, scored the game’s first basket and connected on three treys.
To all this, add freshman Amari Bailey’s smooth Madness debut with 17 points and backup center Kenneth Nwuba’s four-for-four night, and the Bulldogs never stood a chance.
“It was just a surreal feeling,” said Bailey, a key to the team’s continued good fortune. “I mean, I just had chills running through my body.”
You want surreal? How about popular walk-on Russell Stong actually played in the final two minutes of an NCAA tournament game and, even here, the crowd roared.
A couple of weeks from now, this game will probably be remembered as irrelevant. But considering UCLA’s history, it’s a big deal.
Remember, for school that has won an NCAA-record 11 national titles, the Bruins still have a sordid history of losing these first-round games.
The season before they won the national title in 1995, they lost in the first round to Tulsa. The season after they won the title, they lost in the first round to Princeton.
Both of those losses were pinned on Jim Harrick teams, but Harrick wasn’t the only coach who has been stung.
There was Detroit Mercy defeating Steve Lavin’s Bruins in 1999. Then, perhaps in the ugliest early exit, Steve Alford’s Bruins lost to St. Bonaventure on a snowy night in Dayton, Ohio, in the 2018 play-in game.
Cronin has flirted with first-round losses in each of his two tournaments since becoming the Bruins coach, his team escaping Michigan State in overtime in 2021 and then winning by four against Akron last season.
This is not one of those seasons. This is not one of those teams. And on Thursday night, the college basketball world witnessed it.
“It doesn’t surprise me … these guys are trained,” said Cronin. “We play to win at UCLA.”
Earlier in the week, Campbell echoed that sentiment. “We’re here to win games, that’s what we’re just trying to do,” Campbell said. We’re not really worried about everybody else.”
Indeed, everybody else might need to be worried about them.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.
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