UCLA is looking at all business in an NCAA tournament opener track over UNC Asheville

SACRAMENTO CALIFORNIA March 16, 2023 UCLA's Amari Bailey, left, and Tiger Campbell celebrate on the bench against United drive Asheville in the second half of the first round of the NCAA Tournament in Sacramento Thursday.  (Wally Scalig/Los Angeles Times)

UCLA’s Amari Bailey, left, and Tiger Campbell celebrate on the bench against UNC Asheville in the second half of the first round of the NCAA Tournament in Sacramento on Thursday. UCLA won 86-53. (Wally Scalig/Los Angeles Times)

There is no foreman here. There is no Princeton here. There is no late madness, shocking weirdness, or shining significance here.

No Cinderella, just Crush Pumpkins.

University of California You won’t lose it First round match of the NCAA Tournament to an 18-point underdog North Carolina Asheville at the Golden 1 Center on Thursday night.

impossible. No, how. Not for all the madness in the world. This was evident in the first three minutes, which roughly went like this:

UCLA layup. Asheville brick. Two free throws by UCLA. Asheville brick. UCLA Tri. Asheville brick. UC Dunk. Asheville brick. UC Dunk. Asheville turnover. UCLA Tri.

time out!

By the time the terribly overrun Bulldogs could catch their breath, UCLA led 14-0, and it was over. Two hours later, the final score was 86-53, the final message that should have reverberated through this insane March scene.

UCLA don’t mess around.

UCLA won’t be Arizona or Virginia, two respected teams that fell into giant first-day upsets. The University of California, Los Angeles, does not take its #2 ranking for granted. UCLA began its drive to the Final Four in a sprint. Their next stop on this treacherous journey is Saturday here in the second round against rookie Northwestern, a team that took its first round seriously with a solid win over Boise State.

Judging by Thursday night’s intensity and focus, keep betting on the Bruins.

From the moment UCLA lost to Arizona last weekend in the Pac-12 Championship game, UCLA coach Mick Cronin knew it was on.

“They were shocked to see the buzz tonight,” Cronin said. “We don’t lose well at UCLA…we’re talking about a fun win and we lost our last game and these guys took it personally and you saw how we came out.”

Asheville looked like a decent team. They’ve won 18 of their last 19 games, they’re champions of the Big South, and they’ve had two standouts…

And UCLA made them look like a dazed high school band hanging out in the wrong gym.

“I was so confused at the beginning of the game,” Asheville star Drew Pember admitted. “I had no idea what it would be like.”

It was like, relentless. It was like, overwhelming. It was like, UCLA is wearing Cronin’s best. “Our defensive intensity and our deflections early in the game, I think really took their toll on them,” Cronin said. “They can never really get comfortable.”

UCLA's Amari Bailey and Jaime Jacques Jr. fight for a rebound with UNC's Asheville's Fletcher Abe.

UCLA’s Amari Bailey, left, and Jaime Jacques Jr. battle a rebound with UNC Asheville’s Fletcher Abe in the first half of the first round of the NCAA Tournament in Sacramento on Thursday. (Wally Scalig/Los Angeles Times)

The Bruins defense forced the Bulldogs into numerous clanging shots, wild volleys, errant passes, and team fumbles. And the Bruins did it without their giants guard, Adam Bona, who was cleared to play but kept on the bench while he continues to recover from a shoulder injury. Nor have they suffered the absence of Jelen Clark, their defensive leader who is out this season with an Achilles tendon injury.

They will definitely miss Clark later. Bona will have to play in the end if she is to advance. But for now, the Bruins’ veteran and ingrained mentality seems stronger than any one player.

“We’re trying to get the guys to … understand that this is an individual championship and we don’t want this championship to end,” said Jaime Jacques Jr., one of the Bruins’ three veteran captains.

The NCAA Tournament is known for its first-round upsets, but even more telling are its first-round blowouts. One can tell if a good team is ready for greatness by how it handles its business in the opener against an inferior opponent.

Teams that are seriously competing for championships often begin their journey with a strike. As of Thursday night, UCLA looks like one of those teams, just check out the performance of all three spark plugs.

Jaquez was the impressive leader with 17 points. Campbell was at his best with 10 assists. David Singleton, after going scoreless in the Pac-12 Championship game against Arizona, scored the game’s first basket and tied it up with three runs.

To all this, add freshman Amari Bailey’s smooth debut with 17 points and backup Kenneth Nwuba’s four-for-four night, and the Bulldogs never had a chance.

“It was just a surreal feeling,” Bailey said, key to the team’s continued good luck. “I mean, I got goosebumps all over my body.”

Want surreal? How about Russell Stong’s famous walk in the final two minutes of the NCAA Championship game, and even here, the crowd cheered.

Two weeks from now, this game will likely be remembered as irrelevant. But given UCLA’s history, it’s a big deal.

Remember, for a school that has won 11 NCAA national titles, the Bruins still have a dirty history of losing those first round games.

In the season prior to winning the national title in 1995, they lost in the first round to Tulsa. The season after they won the title, they lost in the first round to Princeton.

Both of those losses hung on Jim Harrick’s teams, but Harrick wasn’t the only coach to get stung.

There was the Detroit Mercy Bruins defeating Steve LaVine in 1999. Then, in perhaps the ugliest early exit, the Steve Alford Bruins lost to St. Bonaventure on a snowy night in Dayton, Ohio, in the 2018 play-in-game.

Cronin has fended off first-round defeats in both of his tournaments since becoming Bruins coach, running away from Michigan State in overtime in 2021 and then winning four against Akron last season.

This is not one of those seasons. This is not one of those teams. And Thursday night the college basketball world witnessed it.

“It doesn’t surprise me…these guys are trained,” Cronin said. “We are playing to win at UCLA.”

Earlier in the week, Campbell echoed that sentiment. “We’re here to win games, and that’s just what we’re trying to do,” said Campbell. We’re not really worried about anyone else.”

In fact, everyone else might need to worry about them.

This story originally appeared Los Angeles Times.

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