UCLA guard Johnny Juzang doesn’t see the Bruins as a typical blue-blood college basketball team any longer.
He and his teammates can thank the program’s third-year blue-collar coach – Mick Cronin – for reconstructing more of a gritty, defensive-minded identity that garnered the respect of the nation in reaching last year’s Final Four as a No. 11 seed.
“Getting all the way to playing in April last year, when everyone counted us out, it’s a testament to what we’re capable of,” said Juzang, who bypassed the NBA to return to Westwood for 2021-22, giving UCLA virtually everyone back from last season’s breakout squad. “From a mentality aspect, it was more confirmation that we’re some bad boys.”
That “Bad Boys” reference is seemingly fitting. While the Detroit Pistons of the late 1980s were known for their defense and hard play – sometimes too hard – last March’s NCAA tournament run saw a team that outhustled nearly every opponent with a grind-it-out style. The brand of basketball wasn’t always pretty, but UCLA grew into a tough-minded group on the sport’s biggest stage and hardly played the part of a Cinderella double-digit seed lucky to be there. The Bruins pushed then-undefeated Gonzaga to the brink of its first loss, bowing out of the national semifinals on a buzzer-beater in overtime.
“Our personality as a team comes from Coach Cronin because he cultivates everything in practice that people saw in the tournament,” Juzang said. “He brings out this fight in us and knows how to push each of us just right. He implements a disciplined mentality, especially on defense.”
UCLA’s Johnny Juzang celebrates after defeating Michigan at Lucas Oil Stadium.
The old adage of “defense wins championships” isn’t lost on Cronin. But the 50-year-old coach, who spent 13 years at Cincinnati with a similar style (only with less talent and success), sees that philosophy starting mentally.
“We demand kids compete mentally, not just physically,” Cronin said. “There’s effort. And then there’s championship effort. Execution on a mental level – being disciplined defensively and not turning it over offensively – that counts as competing as well. And I tell our guys, we might not always make our shots but we’re going to be the most mentally tough out there. I hope that comes across in how we play.”
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Part of that focus on mental toughness starts off the court, and now expectations have changed for this chip-on-its-shoulder group. UCLA has garnered attention as a national title favorite and was USA TODAY Sports’ No. 2 team in the Ferris Mowers Men’s Basketball Coaches Poll released this week.
“Coach (Rick) Pitino used to tell me about when he was at Kentucky, that the hardest thing to do was get to your first Final Four,” said Cronin, a disciple of Pitino’s who also has West Virginia coach Bob Huggins in his coaching tree. “Now we’ve done that and it’s who we want to be. That’s the baseline we’re trying to create. The key, though, is not forgetting how we got here.
“Coach (John) Wooden was so far ahead of his time. It’s almost like he knew the internet was coming with all of its criticisms. He said, ‘You’ve gotta ignore criticism and also ignore praise to focus on doing the job.’ He’s so right. We can’t have distractions coming from either good or bad.”
Juzang shares Cronin’s block-out-the-noise approach, but that doesn’t mean the Bruins are dodging expectations or neglecting the pressure of being one of the most successful college basketball programs in history – one with 11 national title banners hanging in the rafters, 10 courtesy of the late Wooden.
“Our goal is really clear: We’re going for a (national) championship, nothing less,” said Juzang, who had 28 points in the Elite Eight vs. Michigan and 29 in the Final Four vs. Gonzaga. “We know March Madness is a (single-elimination) tournament when we want to be playing our best basketball. We’re playing for March. But we gain confidence from being mentally focused and tough so each game isn’t up to luck, it’s up to toughness.
“Last year after we came back from the Final Four, you realize how big March Madness is because all the sudden everyone’s noticing us and praising us. But we’re not letting that get to us. We’re seeing the new pressure to go out and win here at UCLA as an opportunity, not an obligation.”
Joining Juzang in the backcourt for 2021-22 will be returning starters Tyger Campbell and Jaime Jaquez Jr., the latter of whom Cronin expects to have a breakout season. Jaquez showed flashes of his potential in the NCAA tournament, namely with 27 points in the comeback overtime victory over Michigan State in the First Four – the game that started a storybook winning streak.
“Obviously, having all this experience back is huge with upperclassmen guards. That alone in college basketball is rare,” Cronin said. “This year we expect to have more depth, too.”
The frontcourt is where UCLA will get a major enhancement, with big man Myles Johnson, a 6-foot-11 Rutgers transfer who was named to the All-Defensive team in the Big Ten with 2.4 blocks per game, joining returning starter Cody Riley in the paint.
“Watching UCLA play last year, they’re very defensive oriented and it’s a perfect fit because I’m defensive-minded myself,” Johnson said. “I think I can give this team more of a traditional 5-man to free some of the other guys up.
“The guys have all welcomed me and the transition has been seamless. Playing at Rutgers, it was a lot of buildup to break through and get into the NCAA tournament. With UCLA, that’s what getting to the Final Four last year was like for those guys. Now I can tell they all have this hunger to win the whole thing. And I want to be a part of that.”
While the Bruins will benefit from the eligibility of Johnson, a grad transfer, the rest of the nation will benefit from the NCAA’s new transfer policy, which allows players to become immediately eligible upon arrival at a new team.
“We have momentum from the Final Four and all of our guys back, but this season will maybe be the hardest ever to win the national title – because of the transfer portal,” Cronin said. “Mid-major teams are going to be pretty decimated and the top 30 or so teams are going to be even better than they have been in years past because of all the developed talented players joining great teams.
“I’m not in this, and I don’t want my players to be in this, for the adulation. If the fans are setting the expectation for us to win it all or get to the Final Four, guess what, I want to win just as much as they do. If not more.”
Follow college basketball reporter Scott Gleeson on Twitter @ScottMGleeson
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: College basketball: UCLA’s ‘Bad Boys’ mentality redefines blue blood