UCLA won’t be sneaking up on anyone this time.
The Bruins are less than a season removed from their program-reviving Final Four run and the college basketball universe knows what they’re about.
Here’s why that’s not a concern: Coach Mick Cronin’s players know more about themselves too.
Cronin’s philosophy has become embedded in their DNA. The intensity demanded by their third-year coach has become part of their very nature.
In addition to making the Bruins the team to beat in the Pac-12, this self-knowledge offers them a legitimate chance to win a national championship.
The 10 weeks between now and the NCAA final will be a journey of self-discovery for most teams, but the Bruins already know who they are. They have returned their entire starting lineup from their buzzer-beating loss to Gonzaga last year in the national semifinal.
The advantage of that self-knowledge was evident Tuesday night when No. 7 UCLA overwhelmed No. 3 Arizona, 75-59.
“This group of guys, we love these type of games, man,” junior guard Johnny Juzang said. “We love these big games and big matchups.”
One team on the Pauley Pavilion floor didn’t have a single player with NCAA tournament experience and it wasn’t the Bruins.
UCLA’s First-Four-to-Final-Four run last year presented the Bruins with irrefutable evidence that Cronin’s style of basketball can win critical games.
So, taking on an Arizona team that had a one-game lead over them in the conference standings, there was never a question of how they would play. In the rare moments when the visitors had momentum, there was never a doubt about how they would respond.
They flustered the Wildcats with their relentless defense.
They frustrated them by taking care of the ball.
They kept them guessing by sharing scoring responsibilities.
UCLA’s buy-in was absolute. The resulting victory was resounding.
“Effort matters and coaching is overrated,” Cronin said. “Coaching only matters if you can get your team to play with that kind of effort. Then coaching matters. A lot of guys can X and O. It doesn’t matter if your guys don’t do it with a lot of heart.”
The Wildcats entered the game scoring an average of 88.7 points per game. The lowest point total in any previous game was 73, in a loss to No. 18 Tennessee.
The Wildcats made six of their first seven shots, but the Bruins limited them to a 25% field-goal percentage for the remainder of the game.
Arizona’s leading scorer, Bennedict Mathurin, made five of 22 shots.
UCLA point guard Tyger Campbell shut down his Wildcats counterpart, Kerr Kriisa, who was 0 for 12 from the field.
Junior forward Jaime Jacquez Jr. had three of the Bruins’ eight blocks and two of his team’s seven steals.
The Bruins committed only eight turnovers.
“So it negates their fast break,” Cronin said.
With Juzang, Campbell and Cody Riley in good offensive rhythms, the Bruins were able to take a 40-29 lead into halftime without Jacquez scoring a single point.
But when Arizona surged in the second period to narrow its deficit to 51-43, Jacquez scored UCLA’s next three baskets, then assisted on a three-point play by Myles Johnson.
Juzang and Bernard finished with 15 points each, Riley with 12 and Jacquez with 10.
“We don’t have to have a guy carry us for 40 minutes,” Cronin said.
As recognizable players on a Southern California institution, Jacquez and Juzang have attained a measure of local celebrity. But what makes these Bruins dangerous is that they continue to see themselves as they did last season when they finished fourth in the Pac-12.
“I think we like being the underdogs, that’s all I’ll say,” Jacquez said.
When Times writer Ben Bolch told Jacquez they won’t be underdogs anymore, Jacquez replied: “We have that mentality. We like being underdogs.”
The approach is contagious.
Freshman Peyton Watson was a McDonald’s All-American at Long Beach Poly High and could have the highest ceiling of any UCLA player. He played 16 high-energy minutes against Arizona, contributing five points, two blocks and two steals.
“Peyton has a luxury,” Cronin said. “He gets to play with these guys and learn as he goes. If he’s out there 35 minutes every night, he’s got to be the man.”
What Cronin described is how toughness becomes part of a program’s culture. The dynamic explains why UCLA should be a force into the future.
The Bruins will have to rely on their resolve in the coming weeks. They play twice more this week. They will have a rematch with Arizona on the road next week. They will play their first of two regular-season games against No. 15 USC the week after that.
Cronin challenged his players before the game Tuesday.
“I told them in the locker room, they have another gear,” Cronin said. “They just hadn’t given it to me yet.”
Not even in an early season victory over Villanova.
Cronin said he understood why, how difficult it could be to start over after an exhilarating Final Four run, especially with the season disrupted again by the pandemic.
But Cronin knew the extra gear was there. And when it came time for the Bruins to play their most important Pac-12 game to date, they did what came naturally to them. They played the kind of basketball Cronin envisioned.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.