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Last shot at NCAA Tournament for program-changing UCLA men’s basketball seniors

Redshirt senior guard Tyger Campbell (left) and senior guard/forward Jaime Jaquez Jr. (right) walk on the court together. The duo has played a part in turning UCLA men’s basketball into one of the top teams in the country. (Jeremy Chen/Assistant Photo editor)

By Jon Christon

March 14, 2023 11:59 p.m.

Mick Cronin remembers exactly when the Bruins learned how to win.

It wasn’t when his team shocked the world and made the Final Four in 2021, or when it won the Pac-12 regular-season title by four games two weeks ago.

His team learned how to win Feb. 6, 2020.

UCLA men’s basketball had just suffered its second-worst loss of Cronin’s early tenure, an 18-point defeat at Arizona State. By then, the Bruins boasted a 12-11 record with memorable early-season losses to Hofstra and Cal State Fullerton. There was seemingly no end in sight after years of mediocrity for the program.

That’s when Cronin put his foot down.

“We’re not losing anymore,” Cronin recalls telling his team after the loss to the Sun Devils. “I know you want to win, but I’m telling you I know how. You got to believe me.”

UCLA has won 85 of its 109 games since that day. The Bruins rattled off seven straight immediately after the loss in Tempe and made the Final Four a year later. They have so far won 56 games combined in the past two seasons, among the most of any Power Five team, and added their first Pac-12 regular-season championship of the last decade in 2023.

But none of it would have happened without the buy-in from the players – specifically, redshirt senior guard Tyger Campbell, senior guard/forward Jaime Jaquez Jr. and fifth-year guard David Singleton.

Campbell, Jaquez and Singleton were all underclassmen starters for that 2019-2020 team, and Cronin credits them with bringing a winning culture back to Westwood.

“They were willing to do what it took to become winners,” Cronin said.

(Jeremy Chen/Assistant Photo editor)
Jaquez hugs coach Mick Cronin during UCLA’s Senior Night ceremony. (Jeremy Chen/Assistant Photo editor)

That trio of Bruins now have one last chance to prove their worth as winners.

UCLA starts its 2023 NCAA Tournament run as a No. 2 seed with a game against No. 15 seed UNC Asheville on Thursday night. It’ll likely mark the beginning of the end of the college careers of Campbell, Jaquez and Singleton.

“Of course we think about it,” Campbell said.

Campbell has the eligibility to return for a sixth season, but he’d have to do it without two of his longest-tenured teammates. Singleton exhausted his collegiate eligibility this season, while Jaquez has all but guaranteed this year will be his last in Westwood.

Jaquez said this NCAA Tournament run means more knowing these will be his last few games alongside Campbell and Singleton.

“This is one final chance to make something happen,” Jaquez said. “Our backs are against the wall right now.”

Campbell, Jaquez and Singleton have played a combined 422 games for the Bruins, helping the program win the fourth-most games among any high-major team since Cronin’s arrival in 2019.

Jaquez is on track to become just the fifth Bruin to finish in the program’s top 10 in both career points and career rebounds and just the first since Ed O’Bannon did it from 1991-1995. Campbell, meanwhile, will finish top three all-time in both career assists and assist percentage, while Singleton has played more games than anyone else in UCLA history.

The 2022-2023 campaign was a fitting punctuation for their respective careers, though the ending is still being written.

The trio led UCLA to its first Pac-12 regular-season title in a decade while averaging career highs across the board. Jaquez took home the Pac-12 Player of the Year award – the program’s first since 2008 – while the three have led the Bruins to their most wins in a single season in six years.

Cronin said Campbell, Jaquez and Singleton are special because they have embraced their coach’s formula for winning – something he hopes rubs off on the rest of the program long after they are gone.

“They’ve been doing it for a while,” Cronin said. “These guys have no sense of entitlement. … It’s not just that they’re talents. There’s guys with talent all over college basketball.”

[Related: Coach on the court: How David Singleton became UCLA men’s basketball’s leader]

(Jeremy Chen/Assistant Photo editor)
Campbell (left) and fifth-year guard David Singleton (right) high-five on the court. (Jeremy Chen/Assistant Photo editor)

The careers of Campbell, Jaquez and Singleton culminated in one last home game March 4. The three were honored during Senior Night ahead of UCLA’s win over Arizona, and when the game was in hand, their emotions of a final victory at Pauley Pavilion spilled onto the court.

Jaquez and Campbell made eye contact and pushed their foreheads together, each smiling ear to ear while hyping the other up.

“I was just like, ‘It’s been a long time, man,’” Campbell said after the Arizona win. “It’s my brother right here. To go four years with him, it’s been great.”

Still, even with all their wins, accolades, celebrations and praise, the three Bruin seniors have yet to achieve their ultimate goal: a national championship.

Such a goal is far-fetched at most schools but not at UCLA, the all-time leader in men’s basketball national championships.

“When you play here, … you wear the most important jersey in the history of college basketball,” Cronin said. “They know that.”

Jaquez made that clear when he announced a year ago that he was returning for his senior season, titling his announcement video “unfinished business.”

The Bruins got close in Indianapolis in 2021 and could sniff it a year ago with a trip to the Sweet 16. This March will be their best chance, entering the tournament with the program’s highest seed in 15 years. ESPN’s Men’s College Basketball Power Index gives the Bruins a 38.7% chance to make the Final Four – the highest in the West Region – and an 8.7% chance to win the whole thing.

“It’s the last chance for these guys,” Singleton said. “There’s a level of urgency with knowing it’s our last time. We know that you can’t take anything for granted. We have to put 100% effort.”

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Jon Christon | Sports senior staff
Christon is currently a Sports senior staff writer. He was previously the Sports editor on the men's basketball and football beats and the assistant Sports editor on the women's basketball, softball, men's tennis and women's tennis beats. Christon was previously a contributor on the women's basketball and softball beats.
Christon is currently a Sports senior staff writer. He was previously the Sports editor on the men's basketball and football beats and the assistant Sports editor on the women's basketball, softball, men's tennis and women's tennis beats. Christon was previously a contributor on the women's basketball and softball beats.
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