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Reality check. Reality stinks.
For now, UCLA is not the best college basketball team in the country, and it’s not even close.
Punched in the mouth. Knocked out cold.
For now, UCLA is not in the same breath as mighty Gonzaga, nor in the same sentence, nor even in the same league.
Last spring, the Final Four classic between the Bruins and Bulldogs was decided on a 40-foot bank shot.
Tuesday night in the Good Sam Empire Classic at Las Vegas’ T-Mobile Arena, the rematch barely lasted 40 seconds.
It was Gonzaga 83, UCLA 63. The 20-point difference felt like 200. The result landed loud and clear.
Top-ranked Gonzaga (6-0) is poised for a return to late March.
UCLA needs to become UCLA again if it wants to join the Bulldogs there.
The No. 2 Bruins need to reignite their fire, rekindle their grit, reawaken their fight.
Last spring, those Bruins played defense. These Bruins didn’t play a lick. Last spring, those Bruins stood up. These Bruins stepped aside.
These Bruins are 5-1 and have a stirring victory over fourth-ranked Villanova on their resume, but coach Mick Cronin has been unimpressed with their style. On Tuesday, his worst fears were realized.
He has a good team, but the Bruins are not yet close to being good enough, because they’re not yet close to being tough enough.
“This has been coming since the beginning of the season,” Cronin said to reporters. “We’re not a good defensive team and we got exposed tonight by a great team.”
It’s November. It’s Thanksgiving week. It’s Vegas. Cody Riley was missing. There were many excuses that could be used by the backpedaling, barely defending UCLA in what was arguably its worst loss in three seasons under Cronin.
But there was no excuse for Gonzaga’s overall domination, for the Bruins being outshot, outrebounded, outhustled, outworked, and simply outclassed in every area by a team that took the lead less than three minutes into the game and was never threatened.
There was no excuse for throwing up quick shots and then failing to defend because you’re still stewing over the miss. There was no excuse for trying to win through the air instead of grinding it out on the floor.
To be more precise, there was no excuse for the first seven times the Zags roared down the court and converted on an easy layup, initially outscoring the Bruins 14-0 in fast-break points that quickly decided the game.
“As good as Gonzaga is, if they come out really fast and come down the court and lay it in seven times in the first half, I don’t like our chances,” Cronin said. “They weren’t the Lakers, it wasn’t Kareem to Magic to Byron to Worthy for the dunk, it was the guy with the ball dribbled the length of the court and laid it in. We didn’t offer much in the way of resistance.”
There was one more possible excuse, that of an apparent flu-like illness that was reportedly running through the team and reported on the television broadcast and … stop, said Cronin. Just stop.
“No,” he said when asked about the alleged sicknesses. “Sniffles.”
And somebody still wanted to use that as an excuse for the Bruins’ inertia.
“That would add to our colossal softness right now,” Cronin said.
As a sign of Cronin’s colossal frustration, the media-friendly coach didn’t allow any of his players to conduct postgame interviews. He wanted to take full blame for the debacle and, besides, he said, his guys had more important things to discuss.
“The symbolism is, I’m the coach, we got beat and it’s my job to answer for it,” Cronin said. “Right now, they need to be talking to each other and making a decision on what they’re going to do.”
Many thought that decision had already been made before the season. They were going to roll through their schedule, and they were going to gain revenge on Gonzaga.
The Bulldogs lost three stars from last season's Final Four team. The Bruins lost none. The Bulldogs were the team in transition. UCLA was the portrait of strength and stability.
Yet listening to Cronin talk a day before this game, after the Bruins walked through a win against overmatched Bellarmine, one could sense that he saw dark clouds gathering.
“The challenge for me … is us maintaining who we are,” Cronin said.
Sure enough, with a nationally televised audience celebrating the return of cancer-stricken announcer Dick Vitale, with the college basketball world anxiously awaiting a rematch of one of the greatest games in tournament history … UCLA unfortunately looked like someone else entirely.
Johnny Juzang had nearly as many turnovers (4) as baskets (5). Jaime Jaquez Jr. missed his first six shots. Tyger Campbell had one assist in 31 minutes. New big man Myles Johnson had two rebounds. Nobody consistently guarded anybody.
Gonzaga, led by new star guard Andrew Nembhard (24 points) and 7-foot freshman Chet Holmgren (15 points, four blocks), played up to its No. 1 ranking.
UCLA, led by absolutely no one, played as if its No. 2 ranking was a misprint.
The Bruins won last spring by being a Cronin team. They need to figure out how to become a Cronin team once again.
“My biggest thing since I got the job has been winning culture,” Cronin said. “You don't make shots, you have to find a way to win — defense, toughness. And that's been the fight. Because we're a skilled team, but we can't rely on that. We scored a lot of points to start the year … so I think that's our trap, that I have to make sure we get out of that. Because that's a fool's trap. And that got us today.”
This could all change in four months. This probably will change in four months. UCLA is deeply talented enough and smartly coached enough that it should be able to figure this out and close the gap and return to championship form.
Who knows, maybe Gonzaga is just that much better than everyone else.
Or, who knows, maybe UCLA actually needed this ear-ringing slap to wake up and rediscover itself.
Flash back to the end of last regular season, just before their March maddening run. Remember? The Bruins lost their last four games before the tournament. They blew leads in each game. They limped into the First Four.
It turns out, Cronin had them right where he wanted them. They were humbled. They were embarrassed. They started listening again, they played defense again, they played as a team again, and they almost stole a national title.
“We've already been through this,” Cronin said. “So my answer about what do you got to do … they know. If you only win when the ball goes in, you are going to be a .500 team. You better fill out your NIT papers.”
There’s such a thing as NIT papers?
Those and other questions abound as the Bruins head off into a season truly hoping that what happens in Vegas, you know, stays there.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.