Men’s basketball to meet undefeated No. 1 seed Gonzaga in upcoming Final Four match
Sophomore guard Johnny Juzang put up 28 points in No. 11 seed UCLA men’s basketball’s Elite Eight victory over No. 1 seed Michigan on Sunday. Juzang won the East Region’s Most Outstanding Player award with the performance, bringing his average to 21.6 points per game across the five contests. (Courtesy of Jamie Schwaberow/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)
No. 1 seed Gonzaga
Saturday, 5:34 p.m.
By Sam Connon
April 2, 2021 3:09 p.m.
INDIANAPOLIS — Before the Bruins knew this tournament run would lead to their first national semifinal appearance in over a decade, they had to duke it out in a play-in game against the Spartans.
Coach Mick Cronin said he hasn’t slept much in the weeks since, thanks in part to some advice he got from his Michigan State counterpart – one who happens to have 52 March Madness wins and two national championships to his name.
“1 a.m.’s early when you’re playing in the NCAA tournament,” Cronin said. “When we pulled out that win against Michigan State, coach (Tom) Izzo told me, ‘Don’t you dare go to bed, damnit, you’ve got games to win.'”
Well-rested or not, Cronin and No. 11 seed UCLA men’s basketball (22-9, 13-6 Pac-12) will have to take on the tournament’s No. 1 overall seed Gonzaga (30-0, 15-0 West Coast Conference) in the Final Four at Lucas Oil Stadium on Saturday. Being on such a large national stage has meant more eyeballs on the Bruins over the past few days, as well as added press availability, photoshoots, promotional videos and more.
Sophomore guard Johnny Juzang has been at the center of that media whirlwind after scoring 28 points in the Elite Eight on Tuesday, but he said this weekend is still more about basketball than anything else.
“The attention is cool, but I don’t think that’s anybody’s focus,” Juzang said. “We’re very excited to be here from a basketball standpoint, so to be able to keep competing and getting to play another game and another game, … that’s what’s been so awesome.”
Juzang also earned the East Region’s Most Outstanding Player award Tuesday night thanks to his 21.6 points per game through his five NCAA tournament contests. Sophomore guard/forward Jaime Jaquez Jr. listed off all the ways Juzang has helped UCLA’s offense this season, crediting him for putting the team in the position it’s in.
“His role on this team is extremely important, he’s a huge piece for us,” Jaquez said. “His scoring ability is just tremendous. The way he can hit shots off the dribble, off screens, coming off pick and rolls, it’s just really amazing for us.”
The two wings are the Bruins’ leading scorers, and their success in March has brought them both further into the national – and international – limelight.
For one, their performances sparked celebrations more than 2,000 miles away in Westwood. Along with the burning couches and fireworks in the streets, UCLA students chanted their names all the way down to Pauley Pavilion after not being able to watch Juzang and Jaquez in person all season.
“It was pretty awesome,” Jaquez said. “I appreciate all the support, I know the team does as well. Thank you guys for supporting us and getting excited just as we were and we can’t wait to get back to you guys. Not too soon, but you know, a few more days.”
And while they are Southern California born and raised, both Jaquez and Juzang also have international roots that are getting more attention now than ever before.
Jaquez is the first Mexican American to play for UCLA since Lorenzo Mata-Real in 2008, with the latter has acting as a mentor and bona fide hype man for the sophomore since before he arrived in Westwood. Juzang is half Creole, half Vietnamese, and said he recognizes how he has been positioned as a role model for young Asian American athletes.
“Honestly, I don’t really think about anything like that too much – I’m just Johnny,” Juzang said. “But I will get messages and hear stories about how I’ve inspired people regardless of their heritage. Sometimes they are people of Asian descent, but just being able to inspire people is something that’s touching and inspires me and is something I don’t take lightly.”
For Jaquez, Juzang and the Bruins to keep inspiring people on the court this season, they’ll have to secure a win Saturday night against the nation’s top team.
Gonzaga boasts two players – forwards Drew Timme and Corey Kispert – who average roughly 19 points per game as part of the third most efficient offense since the KenPom ratings started in 2002. The Bulldogs have won 29 of their 30 games by double digits this season and have a chance to be the first undefeated national champions since Indiana in 1976.
“We don’t like giving up easy baskets no matter who we play, but it’s going to be a lot harder against Gonzaga,” Cronin said. “You still you got to defend, you got to rebound, you got to take care of the ball and execute but it’s just going to be a lot harder to do due to their personnel.”
Entering the game as an underdog is no new task for UCLA in Indianapolis – that’s been the case for all of its games besides the Round of 32 against No. 14 seed Abilene Christian. This time, however, the Bruins are a 14-point underdog, which is the biggest spread for a Final Four game since the field expanded to 64 teams in 1985.
A win wouldn’t just mean the program’s first national championship appearance since 2006, it would be a history-making upset.
But after upsetting its way from the First Four to the Final Four, that’s nothing out of the ordinary for UCLA in 2021.