SACRAMENTO — Were UCLA’s players paying attention to Thursday’s early results? Or here’s a better question: Did they really need other people’s upsets to motivate them at this time of year?
Hours before the second-seeded Bruins stepped on the Golden 1 Center court to face No. 15 UNC Asheville in the first round of the NCAA tournament, there was a vivid illustration of the perils of overlooking a low seed at the very same site. And when No. 15 Princeton knocked off Arizona, marking the third straight year a 15 had eliminated a No. 2, and No. 13 Furman pulled off a 68-67 victory over No. 4 Virginia in the final seconds earlier in the day in Orlando, the warning bells should have been clanging loudly.
But no, UCLA coach Mick Cronin said, he didn’t bring it up before the Bruins took the floor. His players knew of the upsets, certainly, but there was a more elemental motivation.
“It has no bearing on us,” UCLA’s coach said. “We don’t believe in false motivation, so we don’t believe that you need your home crowd to win. We don’t believe you need two starters to win. We believe that you need toughness and togetherness, playing hard and smart. There’s always a way to win.”
Evidently, the motivation did come from Arizona, but last weekend at the Pac-12 tournament. When the Wildcats beat the Bruins in the championship game, the sting didn’t go away quickly.
“I wasn’t happy, but I knew it was going to help us,” Cronin said. “There’s no question it was going to help us. I know these guys. Like, I know how upset this guy (Jaime Jaquez Jr., sitting next to him at the dais) was that we didn’t win that game Saturday. He was as upset as I’ve ever seen him. So that helps.”
Jaquez was asked how that turns from a negative into a positive.
“I try not to dwell on it ’cause if we lose now, my entire season’s done,” he said. “I don’t think it’s very hard to get me going, or any of the rest of the guys for that matter. … We try to get the young guys to understand this, that this is a one-and-out tournament and we don’t want this to end.”
It was to UCLA’s advantage that for Thursday’s tournament opener it wasn’t playing Princeton, or Princeton Lite, or really any team with any sort of NCAA tournament resume. Instead, Asheville’s players looked like first-timers. They seemed absolutely petrified at the prospect of sharing the court with the Bruins, chucking airballs and throwing passes away.
“I give them (UCLA) a ton of credit,” Asheville coach Mike Morrell said. “They were the aggressors early, and they took it to us. You got to give them credit for that because they were not going to be caught sleeping.
“I thought they were really good defensively. They just kind of really pushed us around all over the floor.”
And with the Bulldogs rattled, and the Bruins coolly doing what they do, the 86-53 result shouldn’t have been a surprise at all .
Drew Pember, Asheville’s best player and the guy Cronin had lauded (hyped?) the day before, was the only prominent member of the Bulldogs who had even been on an NCAA tournament team, at Tennessee before he transferred to Asheville. But he’d never played a tournament game, and Thursday’s debut didn’t go well. Pember had one more field goal in the first half (two) than he had airballs, he had six of his team’s 16 turnovers and he finished with 13 points, well below his average of 21.2.
The rest of the Big South Conference champs were similarly inefficient. They gave up 56 points in the paint and 30 off turnovers, shot 37.3% and were 7 for 17 on layups. Clearly, they were not ready for prime time.
The Bruins, meanwhile, shot 54% and had 24 assists on their 34 field goals.
There is a difference between low seeds that have been here before and understand how to use the unpredictability of March Madness in their favor, and those who have no idea what it’s all about until it hits them. As Morrell described it, the latter is what his team faced Thursday night, and he acknowledged he probably didn’t do enough to help.
“You can talk about it, but you don’t really know, you can’t really understand it, until you experience it,” he said. “You can’t really experience it until you understand it. That’s like a vicious cycle, right? But it’s the truth.
“We tried, man. We tried to explain what the experience was going to be like. I would say these guys probably would agree that it’s a little bit different when you actually get out there and those emotions are flowing. I wish I’d done a better job of helping them with it, though.”
In contrast, Princeton has done this before. It was 27 years since the Tigers took out UCLA in a first-round upset – a 45-43 shocker one year after the Bruins had won the school’s 11th and most recent NCAA championship – in what turned out to be Jim Harrick’s last game as coach. That was a 13th seed knocking off a No. 4, but the message was, and remains, the same: Overlook an NCAA tournament opponent at your peril.
But Asheville’s difficulty probably should have been expected. The program hadn’t reached the NCAA tournament since 2016, had won First Four games twice but has yet to win a first-round game in five tries.
“You’ve got to dominate those teams physically,” Cronin said. “I coached at that level (at Murray State). If you don’t get dominated physically, you can win. (If) you can physically dominate those teams, it’s hard for them.
“… We ended up plus-32 in the paint. That’s what you’ve got to do in games like that. If you don’t, if your size and athleticism isn’t a factor, then it doesn’t matter if you’re high-major or mid-major. You’ve got to high-major them, and we did that tonight physically.”
The Bruins dominated, and they intimidated, to the point where Asheville’s players seemed awed by those four historic letters on their opponents’ jerseys and played scared.
The results were to be expected, and on a day of massive upsets that’s all the Bruins could ask.