UM won't underestimate upstart UCLA with Final Four bid in offing

James Hawkins
The Detroit News

Indianapolis — Michigan freshman center Hunter Dickinson remembers much of the chatter after the NCAA Tournament bracket was revealed on Selection Sunday.

With senior forward Isaiah Livers out indefinitely with a foot injury, naysayers weren’t expecting the Wolverines to make it out of the first weekend. Other prognosticators predicted there was no way they’d advance past the Sweet 16.

"It is funny how once the tournament was set, all I saw on social media was how Michigan is going to get upset in the 8-9 game, how we were the No. 1 seed who is probably the most likely to get upset,” Dickinson said Monday. “We've been doubted the entire season.”

UCLA guard Johnny Juzang has the Bruins on the brink of the Final Four.

UCLA can relate. The Bruins weren’t a lock to make the 68-team field after a tough finish to the regular season and weren’t projected to have a long stay. They even looked like they were headed to an early exit when they trailed Michigan State by five points with 1:29 to play in a First Four matchup.

Two weeks later, Michigan and 11th-seeded UCLA are still standing and will meet in the Elite Eight on Tuesday night at Lucas Oil Stadium (9:57 p.m., TBS) with a spot in the Final Four up for grabs.

“Their run has been amazing because a lot of people have dumped on them and say they don't believe that they should be here or deserve to be here,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said. “I'm sure they've used that as fuel to light a fire underneath them.”

According to UCLA coach Mick Cronin, his team’s recent stretch of success can be contributed to a combination of better ball security, stellar shooting and improved defense.

But the biggest key to UCLA’s turnaround — the Bruins lost four straight heading into the Big Dance — has been on the defensive end. After trailing the Spartans, 44-33, at halftime in the play-in game, Cronin said the Bruins kicked into another gear defensively and haven't let up since.

“Our defense is why we're alive,” Cronin said. “And our defense is why we will survive.”

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Like Michigan, UCLA has also had to adapt and adjust its lineup. The Bruins lost senior guard Chris Smith, the team’s leading scorer last season, to a torn ACL on Dec. 31. Junior big man Jalen Hill, a key reserve, hasn’t played since Jan. 30 due to personal reasons.

“We had to reinvent ourselves defensively,” Cronin said. “We've just learned to play harder and be more consistent with our defensive effort.”

That consistency has helped the Bruins get to this point. They came back to beat No. 11 seed Michigan State in overtime. They beat No. 6 seed BYU and No. 14 seed Abilene Christian by double figures. Then on Sunday night, they shook off a game-tying 3-pointer at the end of regulation to take down No. 2 seed Alabama in overtime and become just the second First Four team to ever reach the Elite Eight.

But the road won’t get any easier against an unselfish Michigan team that picked apart Florida State’s defense. In the three tournament wins, the Wolverines have tallied 60 assists on 83 made fields goals and have had five different players either lead or tie for the team lead in scoring.

“They're extremely efficient,” Cronin said. “They carve you up. It's going to be a different type of game. Alabama was unbelievably fast in transition. Michigan is Big Ten basketball, physical, but their execution is extremely impressive.

“The big question is with Michigan's efficiency and their talent and their play-calling, will we be able to continue to defend the way we've defended here lately?”

The same could be asked of Michigan. Cronin is confident in his team’s ability to score the ball and spread opponents out. The Bruins are averaging 78.5 points and shooting 44.7% from the floor in the NCAA Tournament. They've made 34 3-pointers in their four wins.

Carrying the scoring load has been a pair of 6-foot-6 sophomore guards in Johnny Juzang and Jaime Jaquez Jr., who are averaging 20 and 16.8 points, respectively, over the past four games. The duo also accounts for 46.8% of UCLA's offensive production in the tournament. 

“They cause matchup problems throughout their roster,” Howard said. “Their grit is what has impressed me the most. They don't give up. They're relentless taking the ball to the basket. They shoot the ball extremely well. They attack the offensive glass. Very scrappy group.”

Podcast: March Madness podcast: Confident UM on path to Final Four, UCLA proves it belongs, too

Above all, the Bruins are a squad that’s performing as well as any other team remaining and have proven that they belong while playing with a chip on their shoulder.

Same with Michigan. Dickinson said the Wolverines want to carry a similar mindset and maintain the same approach they have all season long, regardless if they have become a popular Final Four pick after a couple wins.

"We've done a really good job of staying locked into every opponent all season," Dickinson said. "At this point, you can throw those seedings out. They don't matter any more. Every team is here for a reason.

“We're not looking at them as an 11-seed. We're looking at them as another Elite Eight team. I think as long as we keep that mindset we shouldn't be caught by surprise when they start making shots or play really well offensively and defensively. We're treating them with a lot of respect because they earned it and they deserve it."

East Region


►Tip-off: 9:57 p.m. Tuesday, Lucas Oil Stadium, Indianapolis

►TV/radio: TBS/950

►Records: Michigan 23-4, UCLA 21-9

►Outlook: This is the 18th all-time meeting between the programs and UCLA leads the series 11-6. This is also the fifth time the two teams have met in the NCAA Tournament and first time since 1998. …The Bruins are led by sophomore guards Johnny Juzang and Jaime Jaquez Jr., who are averaging a combined 36.8 points per game in the NCAA Tournament. …The winner will advance to face either Gonzaga or USC in a national semifinal on Saturday.

Twitter: @jamesbhawkins