The music has stopped, the last four chairs are taken, and almost all of those ambitious party crashers who spiced up the first few weeks of the men’s NCAA tournament have been thrown out on their butts. All save for 11-seed UCLA, one of the overdoggiest underdogs possible, who have made it all the way from the first four to the Final Four for only the second time in tournament history. Oregon State has been rebounded out of contention, Oral Roberts’ ordained leisure time has come to an end, but Johnny Juzang and the Bruins have flatly refused to bow to any of their supposed betters.
The Bruins will return to their first semifinal since 2008 after a medieval 51-49 win over Michigan on Tuesday, saving what had been an unusually topsy-turvy tournament from winding up with an orthodox, top-heavy Final Four. Had Michigan won, the last four teams would have had a combined seed total of five. That would have made them the second-highest seeded group of Final Four teams in tournament history, behind only 2008’s Final Four, when all four one seeds made it, and 1993’s, when there were three one-seeds and a two-seed. I am talking about historical heft here because, aesthetically speaking, the game itself was a real toilet party.
Michigan leapt out to a quick lead, only to grind to a halt and watch Juzang come alive. Juzang scored 18 of UCLA’s 27 first-half points, splashing jumpers from all over the court and prompting the creation of several broadcast graphics denoting how UCLA’s “REST OF TEAM:” was performing (poorly). He was able to claw UCLA back into the game without too much issue since Michigan could not do much besides cough the ball up in the face of UCLA’s on-ball defense. The Wolverines finished the first half with nine turnovers to 10 made baskets, and though they had a much larger and more athletic team, they were clearly less comfortable with the ugly, slow-paced game that emerged. These are the only highlights from the first half; the rest was mud.
Juzang turned his ankle early in the second half, and Michigan almost immediately closed the gap. Hunter Dickinson, who seems like he would be unstoppable if he could shoot with his right hand, became the focal point of a Wolverines offense unable to break down UCLA’s defense with finesse. Power, then. Juwan Howard at least treated the game like the rockfight it was. Juzang just kept making jumpers, including a floater that could charitably be termed the “key basket,” and everyone involved in the contest became visibly more uncomfortable as the game wound down. Every fan shown by TV cameras appeared to be in the process of hearing a judge declare their sentence. After UCLA coach Mick Cronin defied caution and drew up a play for a three-pointer up one with 35 seconds left, Michigan had their chance for buzzer-beating redemption. Ah, well.
Poor Franz Wagner finished with four points on 1-for-10 shooting and the above airball, and though he’ll briefly be the bad kind of goat, I do think he’ll turn out to be a decent pro. He had another chance at the actual buzzer and missed that one, too.
There is a certain harmony in UCLA reaching the Final Four. This has not just been an NCAA tournament defined by the piece-of-shit Pac-12’s sudden evolution from frog to prince, it has also been a remarkably unpredictable tournament, even by this competition’s own standards. An NCAA official confirmed that the first two rounds featured the most upsets—defined as a team beating an opponent five or more seeds higher—and the four teams seeded 13 or higher that advanced represented the largest group in tournament history. Oregon State, the preseason pick to finish last in the worst major conference, made a run all the way to the threshold of the Final Four, and they were part of a group of double-digit seeds that tallied the second-most opening-round wins ever. Too bad one of those had to be Oral Roberts, though laughing at Ohio State works for me, too.
Had all that chaos given way to Final Four stocked with heavy favorites, it would have been a bummer for anyone cheering along the underdog, though it would not have been out of character. This is how the dynamic always tends to go: Cinderellas knock off high seeds then burn out quickly before the later rounds. Everyone remembers UMBC smoking top-seeded Virginia in 2018, yet their immediate loss to Kansas State is a footnote in that story. UCLA, for their part, is one of the most storied programs in college basketball history, so while they are only the sixth double-digit seed to make the Final Four, they are more like Gonzaga than the 2006 George Mason team.
UCLA did, however, wade all the way here from the first four, knocking off villains the whole way. That alone takes some magic, no matter how many NBA Hall Of Famers came through the program, and the group of players on the team is very charming. Undefeated Gonzaga loom, having laughed off UCLA’s theoretically much better crosstown rivals without appearing troubled in the slightest. Even if they receive their expected whooping, getting to this point is a fitting mile marker for a great tournament for the underdog.