Men’s basketball gears up for first Pac-12 tournament game versus Washington State
Coach Mick Cronin watches his team during a game on Nov. 12. Cronin will get a chance to win his first Pac-12 tournament game Thursday when No. 2 seed UCLA men’s basketball will match up against No. 7 seed Washington State on Thursday. (Ashley Kenney/Photo editor)
No. 7 seed Washington State
Thursday, 6:00 p.m.
By Jon Christon
March 10, 2022 12:32 a.m.
Mick Cronin has a horse named Magic.
The name, however, does not derive from the third-year UCLA coach’s passion for the dark arts. Instead, the horse’s name was inspired by the Bruins’ 2021 Final Four run.
“I believed in what happened last year that I named a horse ‘Magic’ because of it,” Cronin said. “We had the magic of a team that was so committed to staying alive and winning.”
Entering the postseason with magic in his stable for the second consecutive year, Cronin and No. 2 seed UCLA men’s basketball (23-6, 15-5 Pac-12) will kick off their postseason with a matchup against No. 7 seed Washington State (19-13, 11-9) in the quarterfinals of the Pac-12 tournament in Las Vegas.
While Thursday marks the start of another postseason run for the blue and gold, Cronin said he’s focused on balancing his team’s desire to claim the conference title with its ultimate goal of winning a national championship.
The Bruins lost their opening game of the Pac-12 tournament a year ago before winning five consecutive games in the Big Dance.
“Obviously, you just want to play well,” Cronin said. “But Illinois cut the nets down last year in the Big Ten, and I know they would have traded that to be able to get out of the first weekend (of the NCAA tournament).”
UCLA enters the conference clash as winners of three consecutive games and six of its last seven, including a victory over crosstown rival then-No. 16 USC on Saturday. The stretch to close out the regular season started with six games in 12 days – one of the most condensed periods of contests for the Bruins all season.
Redshirt senior center Myles Johnson said the packed schedule helped his team prepare for March.
“You’re going to have not a lot of prep time. You’re going to have to play a game the next day. You’re going to have to get quick recovery, get your body right in a short window,” Johnson said. “That does prep us enough for the upcoming events.”
With the Bruins having played one game in the last nine days entering the tournament, Johnson added that the team’s recent time off has proven beneficial for the players to get some rest before the postseason.
Despite dealing with injuries to nearly every member of its rotation throughout the season, every player on UCLA’s active roster was available to play against USC, although junior guard Johnny Juzang came off the bench for the first time all season while nursing an injury to his ankle.
“We’ve done a good job of that and sort of sustaining and maintaining our energy throughout the season as people have been banged up,” said senior guard Jules Bernard. “Thankfully we’re all ready for the Pac-12 tournament.”
With the Bruins’ leading scorer in Juzang limited as of late, junior guard/forward Jaime Jaquez Jr. has increased his scoring load, putting up 57 points in his last two games. Those efforts earned Jaquez the first Pac-12 Player of the Week award of his career.
With the lights getting brighter and the competition stiffer, Cronin said he’s expecting more big things from Jaquez.
“Every game you’re going to have to beat good teams, so execution becomes paramount on both ends,” Cronin said. “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out we need to get Jaime the ball.”
UCLA will take on a Washington State squad coming off a 66-59 victory over California on Wednesday night in the first round of the tournament.
While the Bruins won the only meeting between the two schools this season – a 20-point home victory in February – the Cougars have won five of their last six contests and enter Las Vegas needing to win out to make the NCAA tournament.
Should UCLA win Thursday, it has potential rubber matches with No. 3 seed USC and No. 1 seed Arizona on the horizon in the semifinals and finals, respectively.
Cronin, however, said his team is more focused on itself heading into the stretch run.
“From a talent standpoint, we have enough,” Cronin said. “The question is, ‘Can we capture the magic again?’”
Tipoff between UCLA and Washington State is set for 6 p.m. on Thursday.