From the First Four to the Final Four. It has a nice ring to it.
UCLA was one of the last teams invited to the 2021 NCAA Tournament. Now, the Bruins are one win away from being one of the last four still dancing among the 68 teams that began this journey.
All that stands in the way is a talented 23-4 Michigan team, the No. 1 seed in the East Region, which UCLA plays in Tuesday’s 9:57 p.m. Elite Eight game at Hinkle Fieldhouse with a berth in its first Final Four since 2008 in the balance.
Only one team since the NCAA Tournament added the First Four play-in games to March Madness 10 years ago has advanced to the Elite Eight — VCU in 2011 — and it made it to the Final Four. The Bruins would love to follow that path … and beyond.
UCLA is Exhibit A of the fragility of the NCAA Tournament.
The Bruins trailed Michigan State by 11 points at halftime in their First Four game only to survive and advance to the bracket of 64 and make their run as a No. 11 seed.
UCLA also lost its final four games before the NCAA Tournament began, which is why it was placed in the First Four in the first place.
An analysis of those four losses, however, will show that they weren’t bad losses against bad teams. On the surface, a four-game losing streak, including being bounced in the first round of the Pac-12 conference tournament, looked pretty bad.
That’s why there wasn’t a lot of expectation for NCAA Tournament success from anywhere but within the UCLA inner circle.
Those four losses, though, did not come against poor teams. To the contrary, each of them came against teams that made it to the NCAA Tournament.
UCLA lost at Colorado, 70-61, to begin the skid. Colorado finished 23-9, was third in the Pac-12 and lost to No. 4 seed Florida State in the second round of the NCAAs.
Next came an 82-74 loss at Oregon, which won the Pac-12 and finished its season with a Sweet 16 loss to USC.
Next was a 64-63 loss to L.A. rival USC, which is 25-7 and plays No. 1 seed Gonzaga in an Elite Eight game Tuesday night.
The last of the losing streak came in an 83-79 overtime defeat to Oregon State in the Pac-12 Tournament first round. The Beavers’ own magical March Madness run ended Monday night with a 67-61 loss to Houston in the Elite Eight.
So, to put those four losses in context, they represented a deceiving losing streak, one that didn’t deem UCLA a team unworthy of an NCAA Tournament invite but perhaps a team that was simply a late bloomer.
UCLA coach Mick Cronin recognized this and did all he could to drill it into his players’ collective psyche as the Bruins embarked on the NCAA Tournament.
Those UCLA players sure looked like they believe they belonged on Sunday night as they were upsetting No. 2 seed Alabama by 10 points in overtime.
Again, though, the fragility of the NCAA Tournament was present on Sunday night as Alabama missed an unthinkable 14 of 25 free-throw attempts. If Alabama made its free throws, then we’re not talking about UCLA’s improbable run from the First Four to the Elite Eight right now.
This is not to discredit UCLA, which showed amazing guile in overtime to pick itself up off the floor after Alabama’s Alex Reese made that game-tying 3-pointer a half-second before the buzzer sounded at the end of regulation.
It’s human nature to be crushed when something like that stuns you. Yet UCLA promptly scored the first seven points in overtime and controlled the extra period.
Cronin called the First Four win over Michigan State “a big turning point’’ for his players after four consecutive losses.
“I think it just did wonders for their confidence,’’ he said.
Cronin said someone congratulated him after the win over Alabama and said, “Well, now you’ve been to an Elite Eight,’’ as if that was an end-all accomplishment.
“That’s not why I came to UCLA,’’ Cronin said. “I’ve got a lot of friends in the NBA [and] they make fun of people that have rings that say ‘conference champion.’ There’s only one [champion]. Whoever wins the NBA title is the world champion.
“So, we’ve got to win three more games. I’m happy we’re alive. You do this to try to have a chance, and you never know when this chance is going to come along again, as a coach, as a coaching staff. You just never know. I’m well aware of how fragile this tournament is, and an opportunity doesn’t always knock at your door.’’