By Devin Voss | @DevinVoss23
Sports Capital Journalism Program
INDIANAPOLIS — It has been 10 years since Virginia Commonwealth University, led by coach Shaka Smart, made one of the greatest, and improbable, runs in NCAA Tournament history. The 11th seeded Rams were the first, and only, team to make it from the First Four to the Final Four, defeating No.11 USC, No.6 Georgetown, No. 3 Purdue, No.10 Florida State, and No.1 Kansas before being eliminated by Butler in a national semifinal. Three days after the 10-year anniversary of VCU’s Final Four berth, the 2021 UCLA Bruins have repeated history, defeating No.1 Michigan 51-49 in the Elite 8 to become the second team to make it from the First Four to the Final Four.
“It’s incredible, man,” guard Johnny Juzang said. “Something, you know, growing up, you just dream about. And to do it with such an amazing group of guys, such incredible staff, such incredible coaches, makes it just so wonderful.”
The Bruins have made basketball history in nearly every way thought possible, and yet, they found a new way to do so. Including the 2021 tournament, the UCLA program has collected 11 national titles, has made 19 trips to the Final Four, 23 to the Elite 8 and 34 to the Sweet 16; produced 28 All-Americans, 36 first-round draft picks, eight NBA MVP’s, nine Hall of Famers, and the list goes on.
But a Final Four visit with a COVID-19 shortened offseason, four straight losses heading into the tournament, a First Four victory and back-to-back wins over a No.2 and No.1 seed?
That is certainly something the Bruins have not been able to accomplish in their long, triumphant history. It’s a new chronicle to a book that has well documented for 102 years. It is one of the greatest feats UCLA has accomplished.
“I knew the expectations, right, I mean, it’s pretty clear at UCLA,” UCLA head coach Mick Cronin said about taking the coaching job two years ago. “I thank Dan Guerrero for believing in me. I tried to convince him that and the guys that were around him with this, that I understood it and I wanted it.”
From start to finish, the Bruins victory had the defensive oriented Cronin written all over it. It was grit, it was toughness, and everything in between. Two players, Juzang and guard Tyger Campbell, made up roughly 77% of the Bruins 51 points. Juzang scored 18 of the Bruins’ 27 first half points. He hurt his foot early in the second. It didn’t matter. He was determined to get back on the court to continue competing. He finished with 28 points on 11-of-19 shooting.
“Juzang, he had a very good game, but every shot or every point that he got, he worked hard for it,” Michigan head coach Juwan Howard said.
Defensively, UCLA was able to hold Michigan, a team that regularly makes 48.5% of its shots and 38.3% from 3-point range, to 39% shooting and 27% from distance. The Wolverines were without a field goal for the closing 5:22. Juzang and Campbell hit shots when they needed to, combining for 11 of the Bruins last 15 points.
“Our toughness, it’s been great all year,” Cronin said. “We won it on the defensive end. We didn’t foul. We didn’t give up a layup. We forced shots over us down the stretch and that was the whole key. We forced shots over us.”
There were multiple facets of the game in which the Bruins were able to limit a high-powered Michigan offense. A team that was 39th in the nation in fewest turnovers committed (11.1) made 14 mistakes, resulting in 14 points for the Bruins. Wolverine guard Franz Wagner shot 1 for 10 from the field, and 0 for 4 from three, including two open three-point misses that would have shifted the tide for Michigan.
“That’s huge, in a game — in a low-possession game, to create 14 turnovers, is really why we won,” Cronin said. “Because if say we force eight, they get six more shots off; they probably beat us. Unbelievable effort by our kids defensively.”
Bruin forward Cody Riley struggled with foul trouble the entire game, picking up his second foul with 6:44 left in the first half and his fourth with 10:44 to go in the game. Kenneth Nwuba stepped up in his absence. Nwuba’s presence in his 21 minutes impacted the game more than a stat sheet could show on a scoreless night. His physicality and strength diverted Michigan’s bigs, forcing them to go elsewhere or take low-quality shots.
“Kenny has never played that many minutes, I don’t think,” Cronin said. “So, he dug deep for us, five big rebounds, great physicality, set some great screens…Stats can be overrated. Here is a guy that didn’t score but you brought his name up for a reason. He had a big impact on the game physically.”
The resilience and grit make this UCLA team unique. It’s everything the program could have imagined when bringing Cronin in two years ago. Yet, even with the historic win, Cronin and his squad understand what lies ahead.
“You can draw stuff up, but the kids have got to execute,” Cronin said. “There’s four teams still left, and we understand what’s ahead of us. But to get this far, you know, we can’t just rip-and-roar.”