Column: UCLA looks all business in NCAA tournament opener

No Furman right here. No Princeton right here. No late craziness or surprising weirdness or shining momentousness right here.

No Cinderella, solely smashing pumpkins.

UCLA was not going to lose its NCAA first-round match recreation to 18-point underdog North Carolina Asheville on the Golden 1 Heart on Thursday evening.

No approach. No how. Not for all of the insanity on this planet. This was evident within the first three minutes, which went roughly as follows:

UCLA layup. Asheville brick. UCLA two free throws. Asheville brick. UCLA trey. Asheville brick. UCLA dunk. Asheville brick. UCLA dunk. Asheville turnover. UCLA trey.


By the point the horribly overmatched Bulldogs may catch their breath, UCLA led 14-0, and it was over. A few hours later the ultimate rating was 86-53, and the ultimate message was one that ought to resonate by way of this maddening March panorama.

UCLA shouldn’t be messing round.

UCLA shouldn’t be going to be Arizona or Virginia, two revered groups that fell in large first-day upsets. UCLA shouldn’t be taking their No. 2 seeding with no consideration. UCLA is starting their march to the Ultimate 4 in a dash. Their subsequent cease on this treacherous journey is Saturday right here within the second spherical towards resurgent Northwestern, a group that additionally took its first spherical severely with a robust win over Boise State.

Judging from Thursday evening’s depth and focus, preserve betting the Bruins.

From the second UCLA misplaced to Arizona final weekend within the Pac-12 match championship recreation, UCLA coach Mick Cronin knew it was on.

“They ran right into a buzz noticed tonight,” mentioned Cronin. “We don’t take dropping effectively at UCLA … we spell enjoyable w-i-n and we misplaced our final recreation and these guys took it private and also you noticed how we got here out.”

Asheville appeared like a good group. That they had gained 18 of their final 19 video games, they had been Huge South champions, they’d a few premier gamers …

And UCLA made them appear like a dazed highschool squad that wandered into the incorrect gymnasium.

“I used to be extraordinarily flustered originally of the sport,” acknowledged Asheville star Drew Pember. “I had no thought what it was going to be like.”

It was like, relentless. It was like, overwhelming. It was like, UCLA sporting its Cronin greatest. “Our defensive depth and our deflections early within the recreation, I feel, actually rattled them,” mentioned Cronin. “They may by no means actually get snug.”

UCLA’s Amari Bailey, left and Jaime Jaquez Jr. battle for a rebound with UNC Asheville’s Fletcher Abee within the first half of the primary spherical of the NCAA match in Sacramento on Thursday.

(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Occasions)

The Bruins protection pressured the Bulldogs into quite a few clanking pictures, wild airballs, wayward passes and mass confusion. And the Bruins did it with out their large stopper, Adem Bona, who was cleared to play however stored on the bench whereas he continues to get well from a shoulder harm. In addition they didn’t endure from the absence of Jaylen Clark, their defensive chief who’s out for the season with an Achilles harm.

They’ll absolutely miss Clark later. Bona goes to should finally play in the event that they wish to advance. However for now, the Bruins’ veteran savvy and unflinching mindset appears extra highly effective than anybody participant.

“We attempt to get the younger guys to … perceive that that is one-and-out match and we don’t need this to finish,” mentioned Jaime Jaquez Jr., one among Bruins’ three veteran leaders.

The NCAA match is known for its first-round upsets, however extra telling is its first-round blowouts. One can inform if a superb group is prepared for greatness by how they deal with their enterprise of their opening recreation towards an inferior opponent.

Groups that severely contend for championships usually start their journey with a rout. Judging from Thursday evening, UCLA seems like a kind of groups, simply try the efficiency of these three senior spark plugs.

Jaquez was the cool chief with 17 factors. Campbell was at his playmaking greatest with 10 assists. And David Singleton, after going scoreless within the Pac-12 match championship recreation towards Arizona, scored the sport’s first basket and linked on three treys.

To all this, add freshman Amari Bailey’s clean Insanity debut with 17 factors and backup middle Kenneth Nwuba’s four-for-four evening, and the Bulldogs by no means stood an opportunity.

“It was only a surreal feeling,” mentioned Bailey, a key to the group’s continued success. “I imply, I simply had chills working by way of my physique.”

You need surreal? How about common walk-on Russell Stong truly performed within the remaining two minutes of an NCAA match recreation and, even right here, the group roared.

A few weeks from now, this recreation will most likely be remembered as irrelevant. However contemplating UCLA’s historical past, it’s an enormous deal.

Keep in mind, for college that has gained an NCAA-record 11 nationwide titles, the Bruins nonetheless have a sordid historical past of dropping these first-round video games.

The season earlier than they gained the nationwide title in 1995, they misplaced within the first spherical to Tulsa. The season after they gained the title, they misplaced within the first spherical to Princeton.

Each of these losses had been pinned on Jim Harrick groups, however Harrick wasn’t the one coach who has been stung.

There was Detroit Mercy defeating Steve Lavin’s Bruins in 1999. Then, maybe within the ugliest early exit, Steve Alford’s Bruins misplaced to St. Bonaventure on a snowy evening in Dayton, Ohio, within the 2018 play-in recreation.

Cronin has flirted with first-round losses in every of his two tournaments since turning into the Bruins coach, his group escaping Michigan State in additional time in 2021 after which profitable by 4 towards Akron final season.

This isn’t a kind of seasons. This isn’t a kind of groups. And on Thursday evening, the school basketball world witnessed it.

“It doesn’t shock me … these guys are skilled,” mentioned Cronin. “We play to win at UCLA.”

Earlier within the week, Campbell echoed that sentiment. “We’re right here to win video games, that’s what we’re simply attempting to do,” Campbell mentioned. We’re not likely frightened about everyone else.”

Certainly, everyone else may have to be frightened about them.