For anyone who hasn’t been paying attention, Southern California has always been the hot bed for basketball talent from the grass roots level, to college and onto the NBA. We are the mecca of basketball.
So, after both USC and UCLA advanced to The Elite Eight of the men NCAA basketball tournament it served notice to the nation and so called blue bloods that we are not to be taken for granted.
UCLA, once considered basketball royalty, has captured 11 National Championships but had been marred in obscurity muddling through season after season and flunking out in all tournament test since 1995.
That’s when former Morningside coach Jim Harrick did the unthinkable and led the Bruins to the only NCAA title not won by John Wooden.
Harrick, currently an assistant coach at Cal State Northridge, is just a footnote in the annals of UCLA sports lore.
He has not been celebrated or truly respected for being the only living coach to win an NCAA title other that the Wizard of Westwood.
Shortly before the 1996 season, UCLA fired Harrick for lying about who attended a recruiting dinner. At the time, Harrick was the second-winningest coach in school history.
Harrick came on the heels of a dismal reign after Walt Hazzard.
Steve Lavin took over from 1996 to 2003, compiled a record of 145–78. He was one of only two coaches in the country to lead his team to five NCAA “Sweet 16s” in six years (1997, 1998, 2000–2002), the other coach being Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski. Lavin guided UCLA to six consecutive seasons of 20 or more wins, as well as six consecutive NCAA tournament appearances, but it was not good enough.
Ben Howland, a coach who employed a similar style as current mentor Mick Cronin, went to back to back Final Fours defeating the likes of Gonzaga and Kansas in the process.
Howland got fired and Steve Alford introduced UCLA being an 11 seed.
Alford was shown the door and after the Lakers brought LeBron from Ohio, the Bruins went to Cincinnati and got the highly successful mid major coaching star Cronin.
Few blinked, and no one really cared.
Some scoffed would be Howland lite, installing a grinding scheme of defensive intensity in a region that loves the run and gun.
Just two years in Cronin has changed the culture at UCLA and is demonstrating that if he can keep UCLA in games, the talent will win close games and that is what has transpired in this run that led the Bruins to The Final Four against top seed Gonzaga on April 3.
I love that Cronin has openly embraced the challenge of winning it all, and that getting to this point does not happen often. There are no guarantees the Bruins will ever return. That is why it is incumbent to win it all.
Regardless the odds stacked against him and the 11 seed Bruins which entered the tournament as a contingent of the First Four on its way to knocking off No. 2 seed Alabama and No. 1 seed Michigan.
Gonzaga is a different animal, but UCLA has heard that before and have relished being the underdog. The Bulldogs thumped UCLA rival USC by 19 in the Elite Eight. UCLA would love to smash Gonzaga and then win National Title No. 12.
Nobody expects them to win anyway.
“Nobody picked us. Nobody believed in us. That’s how we like it.”