The beginning of this movie got off to a rough start. And while the final scene hasn’t been written yet, it’s already a triumphant tale.
When Mick Cronin left Cincinnati to take over in Westwood in 2019 after the school unsuccessfully threw themselves at TCU’s Jamie Dixon and Tennessee’s Rick Barnes, it had become clear that UCLA’s prestige was gone. The 11 national champions didn’t mean anything anymore, especially since the Bruins hadn’t won one since 1995, meaning that the legacy of the sport’s most successful program was just a “cool story” to today’s recruits.
UCLA was desperate, and it was uncomfortable to watch. But, oddly enough, Cronin relished the opportunity. He knew something we didn’t, as the Bruins are headed to the Final Four.
“I am incredibly humbled and honored to become the head coach at UCLA,” Cronin said when he was hired.
“UCLA is a very special place with a strong tradition of excellence. To be able to join such a world-class institution is truly a privilege, and I can’t wait to get started in Westwood.”
In just two seasons, Cronin has turned UCLA back into what it once was, as the No. 11 Bruins defeated No. 1 Michigan, 51-49, to advance to the tourney’s final weekend for the 19th time. The Bruins joined 2011 VCU as the only teams to go from the First Four to the Final Four. 2018 Loyola, 2006 George Mason, and 1986 LSU join VCU and UCLA as the only No. 11 seeds to have reached the plateau. And with wins over No. 2 Alabama and No. 1 Michigan, UCLA and ‘86 LSU are the only No. 11 seeds in tournament history to knock off No. 1 and No. 2 seeds on their journeys.
“Players win games, and I want to thank these kids for beveling in me,” Cronin said after the win. “I want to thank everybody that’s ever played for me. I wouldn’t be here if they didn’t believe in me and let me coach them. These guys get all the credit, though. Unbelievable heart and toughness. Nobody picked us and nobody believed in us. But, that’s how we like it.”
Before Cronin showed up in Los Angeles, the Bruins hadn’t experienced much postseason success since the Ben Howland era, in which they played in three consecutive Final Fours between 2006-2008. After that, there were a few first- and second-round exits and two years in which they didn’t qualify for the tourney.
Steve Alford was up next. And while things looked promising at first, his tenure was feast or famine. In his six seasons at UCLA, the Bruins either made it to the Sweet 16 or missed the tournament.
But now, Cronin and his team have a chance to create their own narrative. After losing four straight coming into the tournament, it was a surprise to some that they even qualified. However, wins over No. 11 Michigan State, No. 6 BYU, and No. 14 Abilene Christian along with Alabama and Michigan have UCLA poised to pull off their biggest upset yet, as they’ll face No. 1 overall seed Gonzaga on Saturday, as the Bulldogs looked to keep a winning streak alive that began in February 2020.
“Obviously, we know our next assignment is tough, but (our) resiliency is unbelievable.”
Less than two weeks ago, UCLA was the underdog on Day One of the NCAA tournament. Eighteen days later, they could be playing for a chance to win a national championship.