INDIANAPOLIS – The meeting of the Lovable Upstarts Club is called to order. Let’s take a roll call of all those underdogs who, as No. 11 seeds, are the lowest to ever advance to the Final Four. You know, the little engines who could.
VCU of 2011 is here. When the 23-11 Rams were given an at-large bid and assigned to the First Four, critics nearly burned VCU shirts in effigy for taking a spot from a more rightful owner, like say, the ninth-place team in the ACC. The Rams served crow for dinner many times that year.
George Mason of 2006 is here. The only group of people smaller than those who predicted the Patriots would run through Michigan State, North Carolina and Connecticut were those who knew who the man George Mason actually was.
Loyola Chicago of 2018 is here. The Ramblers proved that age-old adage, if you want to maximize your charm appeal, show up at the Final Four with a spirited 98-year-old nun as your team chaplain.
LSU of 1986 is present. The 11-loss Tigers walked the high wire to the Final Four, winning in overtime, then by two points, six points and two. The last one was Kentucky.
And welcome the new member, those cuddly teddy bears, the waifs of Westwood . . . UCLA? What’s a program with 11 national championships and 19 Final Fours doing in this room? Yeah, the Bruins are playing in Indiana, but "Hoosiers," this ain’t. The titles Cinderella and UCLA go together like a low-carb diet and a large pizza with extra cheese.
Not that the Bruins’ story doesn’t have fairy tale features. The coach is 5-3 and one of the more enchanting features of his team’s march has been to see Mick Cronin pay tribute to his father Hep, who he hadn’t been able to see for a year because of COVID precautions. Hep taught his son the game and was part of the story that Mick Cronin told Tuesday about the decision to step from the comfort of near-total security at Cincinnati into the hotbox of UCLA.
“Coach (Rick) Pitino is like an older brother to me,” Cronin said, “and he used to say, ‘I’d rather live one day as a lion than a thousand as a lamb.’ It’s like I told my father, 'If I don’t take this job, I’ll feel like a lamb.’”
The roster has no seniors. Expected star Chris Smith was lost to injury. Another key Bruin, Jalen Hill, has been out for personal reasons. Top recruit Daishen Nix changed his mind and went to the NBA G League. Did Cronin expect a Final Four run after all that? “Hell no,” he said. “Hell no.”
The star who put on the epic one-man show against Michigan is from a Creole father, a Vietnamese mother and has a brother who played at Harvard. Johnny Juzang originally enlisted with the blue-chip wave at Kentucky, but after an unfulfilling season decided he wanted to come home to L.A. He was the Bruin that Michigan couldn’t stop, scoring 28 of UCLA’s 51 points. “The ups and the downs,” he said of his journey, “that makes moments like this even more special.”
The point guard is named Tyger Campbell. That’s because Tiger Woods was winning the Mercedes Championships that day in 2000 when he was born. Imagine if Vijay Singh had gotten hot in that final round.
The 6-9 reserve who played such a key role Tuesday is Kenneth Nwuba. He has scored two points all season. Until Tuesday, he had been on the court only 86 minutes since November. But he was out there for 21 minutes against the Wolverines because Cronin needed size to counter the Michigan inside power. Nwuba got five rebounds, took some important charges and became part of the conversation about a regional championship game without taking a shot.
The Bruins were out-rebounded by Michigan by 10, outscored in the paint by 16, and everyone on the team not named Juzang was 10-for-35 for only 23 points. But UCLA is the team advancing because toughness matters, and that’s something Cronin has been trying to get the Bruins to see since he showed in Westwood from 2,000 miles away. “I told them I was going to teach them how to win,” he said. “Stats are for losers, you either win or you lose. I think that stat sheet can get crumbled up tonight.”
And that’s how a team could score 51 points in a game and still get to the Final Four. “We got some warriors,” Juzang said.
So yeah, they can stay here with their fellow upstarts, and trade stories with VCU on what it’s like to start out in the First Four and end up in the Final Four. Speaking of ignoring the odds, look who the Bruins are playing next. That would be Gonzaga.
“We understand what’s ahead of us,” Cronin said.
Consider this scenario. UCLA upsets the Zags, then Baylor. That would mean the Bruins will have not only become the lowest-seeded national champion ever, and the first team in history to win seven NCAA tournament games, but they also will have finished the job against three consecutive No. 1 seeds.
What an underdog story that would be. Even if they’d have to work to find room in Pauley Pavilion for another national championship banner.