Un-Connon Opinions: Despite Final Four loss, men’s basketball is primed for future success
UCLA men’s basketball made an unexpected run to the Final Four after making the tournament as one of the last four teams selected. Despite bowing out in the semifinal, the Bruins were praised by fans and alumni. (Courtesy of Jamie Schwaberow/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)
By Sam Connon
April 4, 2021 3:43 p.m.
INDIANAPOLIS — Nobody ever wants to end the season with a loss.
After all, that means you didn’t come out on top and win a championship – every team’s goal at the start of every campaign.
But the pride and promise permeating through Westwood make this particular heartbreaking loss an easier pill to swallow.
It was never going to be easy to see No. 11 seed UCLA men’s basketball (22-10, 13-6 Pac-12) leave the court for the final time this season, whether that was going to be because of a crushing tournament loss or a historic title win. It wound up being the former thanks to No. 1 seed Gonzaga’s (31-0, 15-0 West Coast Conference) miraculous 3 at the end of overtime Saturday night, but either way, this was a team that inspired a city, a school and more.
Seemingly the entirety of Los Angeles hopped on the Bruin bandwagon for their Final Four run – the first in over a decade – with Rose Bowl Stadium, SoFi Stadium, Banc of California Stadium, Dodger Stadium, LA City Hall and the Santa Monica Ferris wheel all getting lit up in blue and gold leading up to the game. Alumni from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Walton to Joshua Kelley, Trevor Bauer and Cari Champion chimed in to support their alma mater, while the rest of the country was simply pulling for a double-digit-seeded underdog to make the title game for the first time ever.
That school pride and national support have not dissipated one bit since the loss to the Bulldogs.
UCLA has earned near-universal praise from media members, NBA players, college legends and more for hanging tight with one of the most dominant men’s teams to take the court in 20-plus years. It took a half-court prayer to knock the Bruins out of March Madness, and that isn’t lost on anyone who watched coach Mick Cronin call the game of his life Saturday night.
Historically speaking, coming out on the losing end of one of the greatest games in college basketball history is far from a death sentence.
After Christian Laettner’s iconic buzzer-beater that helped Duke beat Kentucky in the 1992 Elite Eight, the Wildcats made three straight national championship games from 1996 to 1998, winning two of them. North Carolina’s crushing loss to Villanova on Kris Jenkins’ own tie-breaking 3 at the buzzer in the 2016 championship game can be softened by the fact the Tar Heels made it back to the title game and won it all the very next season.
On the women’s side, Arike Ogunbowale’s buzzer-beater to help Notre Dame take down Connecticut in the 2018 Final Four cost the Huskies a chance at winning their seventh title in 10 years, but their streak of 13-straight Final Four appearances is still alive to this day.
Make no mistake, Saturday’s game is certainly up there with those all-timers.
Neither team scored more than six unanswered points, and no one ever led by more than seven in the overtime slugfest that easily could have gone either way.
When teams shot over 55% from the field, turned the ball over 10 times or less and held their opponent to seven or fewer 3s – as UCLA did against Gonzaga – they were 98-1 this season prior to Saturday night. But based on the simulations accounting for the quality of shots attempted, the Bulldogs win the game 98 times out of 100.
Even if you don’t believe in moral victories, the balance of continuity and growth projected for next year’s Bruins should be an encouraging sign they’ll be back for more.
There isn’t 100% certainty that UCLA will put the band back together for a revenge tour next season, but it certainly looks like it could go that way on paper. Redshirt sophomore guard Tyger Campbell, sophomore guard/forward Jaime Jaquez Jr. and redshirt junior forward Cody Riley are near-locks to return, while junior guard Jules Bernard, junior guard David Singleton, sophomore guard/forward Jake Kyman, redshirt sophomore forward Kenneth Nwuba, freshman guard Jaylen Clark and freshman forward Mac Etienne might as well enroll in their fall quarter classes now.
Senior guard Chris Smith missed the last three months with a torn ACL, and while it seemed at the time he was set on leaving school and entering his name in the NBA Draft this summer, his stock has taken enough of a hit where a return to Westwood for a fifth year might do him some good. The one true wild card is redshirt junior forward/center Jalen Hill, who left the team because of personal issues in February, since his reasons for stepping away could be related to anything from COVID-19 to mental health to wanting a change of scenery.
The last player with a big decision left on his hands is sophomore guard Johnny Juzang.
Testing the waters in the NBA Draft pool after averaging 22.8 points per game in March Madness is certainly in the cards for Juzang, and no one would blame him for trying his luck in the pros. On the other hand, he would immediately be the odds-on favorite for next year’s Pac-12 Player of the Year award should he return to school, giving UCLA an offensive centerpiece no one else could compete with.
In addition to all of the returning production, five-star small forward Peyton Watson will arrive on campus to join the team in the offseason, as will four-star shooting guard and defensive stalwart Will McClendon.
Adding two highly ranked young bodies into the rotation isn’t only good for next year’s squad, it’s the start of a new age of Bruin recruiting – both signees commented on the official UCLA men’s basketball Instagram post following the game, talking about the team’s culture and selling future prospects on the idea of joining them in Westwood as 2022 five-star commit Amari Bailey had been doing for months.
Saturday’s loss may be a dark moment Bruin fans will have to relive over and over again, with Jalen Suggs’ 3-pointer already being hailed as one of the most memorable plays in sports history. Hanging banner No. 12 in the rafters this year would have been both unexpected and instantly iconic, so losing out on that chance certainly stings.
But the road ahead is bright – Cronin has established the winning culture he set out to, the city and school are on their side and the roster is set to be one of the best in the nation at the start of next season.
Champions are made in Westwood, and they’ll bring one home soon enough.