The UCLA Bruins entered the 2021 NCAA Tournament with 18 Final Four appearances. They now have 19 and this is easily the most improbable.
The Bruins became the second team to go from the First Four to the Final Four. Whereas the other three teams won four games to reach college basketball’s holy grail, UCLA won five games.
The Bruins won the preliminary-round game against Michigan State to merely reach the round of 64. Then they added four more wins to return to the Final Four for the first time since 2008 when a player named Kevin Love led the Bruins up against Memphis and Derrick Rose in San Antonio.
Let’s dive into these Bruins and what they are made of and see if they can overcome the college basketball odds and win at least one more time.
How They Got Here
The Bruins were down by 14 against Michigan State and seemed to be on their way to a quick exit. Somehow, they turned around that game.
They were down by three points in the final minute of regulation, but they rebounded a missed free throw, got a basket, drew a foul, made the tying free throw, forced overtime, and then dominated Michigan State in the overtime period for an 86-80 victory which completely reset this team’s mindset and changed its sense of what was possible.
UCLA played strong pair of games to beat sixth-seeded BYU and 14th-seeded Abilene Christian, and the Bruins had reached the Sweet 16, a great result for a No. 11 seed. The party was likely to end, but the Bruins refused to lose.
UCLA then defeated second-seeded Alabama in overtime and beat top-seeded Michigan in a defensive war, 51-49.
The win over Alabama occurred after the Crimson Tide hit a 28-foot 3-pointer at the buzzer to tie the game. UCLA could have been deflated and distracted in the overtime period, but the Bruins regrouped with a level of toughness we did not see from them in the regular season.
UCLA is grinding out possessions and dramatically elevating its level of defensive focus. After prevailing in OT versus Alabama, the Bruins played a masterful defensive game in holding Michigan to 49 points. Michigan shot 39% from the field, made only three 3-pointers, and made six free throws. The Wolverines were handcuffed by UCLA’s best defensive effort of the season.
UCLA is truly peaking at the right time. The question is can they make it happen against one of the best offensive teams not only in the country this year but one of the best we’ve seen in recent memory.
The Bruins are maxing out. Their defense was not good in the regular season, but this team is playing connected tough, resilient basketball. It has found a new purpose after escaping from Michigan State in the First Four. The Bruins have Johnny Juzang and Jaime Jaquez, two hot shooters who are playing confidently and without fear. Great defense and the Juzang-Jaquez combination have been enough for UCLA to reel off five straight tournament wins.
The Bruins are not especially deep, and beyond Juzang and Jaquez, they don’t have high-end scorers who can create shots on their own. UCLA scored only 51 points in its Elite Eight win over Michigan. The Bruins can’t expect to struggle again on offense and win in the Final Four.
The Bruins run into the Gonzaga juggernaut on Saturday in the Final Four national semifinals. Gonzaga opened as a 14-point favorite in the sportsbook and that betting line has continued to climb. It would be an all-time upset if UCLA wins. The road is likely to end for the Bruins, but they won’t mind. They have already overachieved this season by making the Final Four in a very improbable fashion. This is likely the end of the road for them as Gonzaga is too good.