When UCLA coach Mick Cronin entered the Bruins’ locker room following their loss to USC on Saturday afternoon, he was pleased with what he saw.
He saw players angry, disappointed and upset. He heard their comments of wanting to take their aggression and frustration out on the team’s next opponent. This, he thought, was a sign of a passion to win – something he hadn’t seen the last time UCLA lost a game.
“That was the best part about Saturday for me, definitely,” said Cronin, who this week was named Pac-12 Coach of the Year. “I don’t make light of that, that was a big shift to see our reaction and how upset the guys were. You’re going on the road against another team on their second Senior Day sellout expecting to win. From two months ago, when nobody would have expected you to have a chance, let alone win the game.”
The Bruins’ surge included seven consecutive wins and earned them a second-place finish in the Pac-12 and the No. 2 seed for this week’s conference tournament. UCLA (19-12 overall, 12-6 Pac-12) earned a first-round bye after sweeping the Arizona schools in its final homestand of the regular season and will face 10th-seeded Cal in Thursday’s 6 p.m. quarterfinal.
“I could feel the energy in the locker room,” said junior guard Chris Smith, who this week was named the Pac-12 Most Improved Player of the Year honor. “No one was happy with the results that we got. Everyone was pretty (upset) in the locker room. That’s what winning teams have to do. After losing, you got to be mad, you got to be looking forward to the next one, gotta be looking to figure out what you did wrong and fix that for the next game.”
The last time the Bruins were the No. 2 seed in the Pac-12 Tournament was in 2014, which was also the last time the program won the conference title. UCLA played in front of 12,916 fans in that year’s championship game against Arizona.
This year, however, due to concerns surrounding the spread of the coronavirus, COVID-19, the Bruins will play in the tournament without any fans as part of a spectator ban by the Pac-12 and the NCAA.
“The fans bring a lot of energy to the game. That’s what makes it fun. Other than that, it’s just a scrimmage,” redshirt sophomore forward Cody Riley said Tuesday, a day before the Pac-12 announced its spectator ban. “Either way it goes, we’re going to come out and play the same way, regardless with or without the fans there.”
UCLA won its only meeting with Cal (14-18, 7-11) this season, defeating the Bears 50-40 on Jan. 19 in Westwood. It was the Bruins’ fewest points in a win since 2006. The two teams’ last meeting in the Pac-12 Tournament was in 2010 when Cal defeated UCLA in the semifinals. Cal defeated No. 7 seed Stanford 63-51 in a first-round game Wednesday.
No. 2 seed UCLA (19-12, 12-6) vs No. 10 seed Cal (14-18, 7-11)
When: Thursday, 6 p.m.
Where: T-Mobile Arena, Las Vegas
TV/Radio: Pac-12 Networks/ 570 AM