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How UCLA went from embarrassing to the most intriguing team on the NCAA tournament bubble

The coach whose team handed UCLA its most humbling loss of the season marvels when he watches the Bruins now.

Cal State Fullerton’s Dedrique Taylor believes they look like a totally different team aside from the four letters across their chests.

No longer does UCLA appear so resistant to first-year coach Mick Cronin’s emphasis on discipline, effort and fundamentals. The Bruins now clearly understand they cannot win on talent alone.

No longer is UCLA so nonchalant scrambling to contest shots or so careless about missing box-outs or defensive rotations. The Bruins now display a newfound commitment to defense and rebounding.

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No longer do UCLA players’ heads drop and shoulders slump at the first hint of adversity. The Bruins now appear to have the confidence that they can fight back from any deficit.

“It’s so awesome to see the transformation that UCLA basketball has made under Coach Cronin,” Taylor said. “When they played us, they had bad body language, they weren’t executing on defense, they weren’t winning 50-50 balls and they weren’t making toughness plays. Now you expect them to do those things and they themselves expect to do those things. They understand that if they do, they’re going to win.”

UCLA’s stunning midseason revival makes the Bruins one of the toughest bubble teams for the NCAA tournament selection committee to assess. Committee members will have to figure out how to evaluate a team that floundered for much of the season but has performed like a top-20 team since mid-January.

Left for dead after failing to beat a single top-100 opponent during non-league play and suffering embarrassing home losses to Hofstra and Cal State Fullerton, UCLA reaffirmed its irrelevance by dropping three of its first four Pac-12 games. Only then did the Bruins roar back to life, winning 11 of their next 13 games, including sweeps of Colorado and Arizona and a home victory over previously surging Arizona State.

Tyger Campbell (10), David Singleton (34), Jaime Jaquez Jr. (4), Jalen Hill (24) and Chris Smith (5) of the UCLA Bruins listen as head coach Mick Cronin talks during a timeout on Feb. 29. (Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images)

That torrid stretch leaves UCLA (19-11, 12-5) with an unusual résumé entering Saturday’s regular season finale at USC (21-9, 10-7).

On one hand, UCLA is alone in first place in the Pac-12 and boasts eight Quadrant 1 or 2 victories since late January. On the other hand, the Bruins were so dreadful the first half of the season that they’re still only 75th in the NCAA’s NET rankings, below some teams that will struggle to make the NIT, let alone contend for an NCAA bid.

Most mock brackets currently project UCLA as one of the last teams in the field or one of the first left out. The committee is instructed not to weigh how a team finishes any heavier than how it starts, but Cronin is hopeful that UCLA will be rewarded for its marquee wins and late-season improvement.

“I always refer to Jay Bilas’ thing: Who have you played and who have you beat?” Cronin said. “We’re in first place in the Pac-12 and six or seven teams from our league are going to the NCAA tournament. What else is there to talk about?”

Whatever happens on Selection Sunday, UCLA should be encouraged that it is even in the conversation. It’s an early sign that Cronin may prove to be the right choice for the job even if he wasn’t athletic director Dan Guerrero’s top candidate — or even his second or third.

Not only did Cronin inherit a struggling program that lost its top three scorers from the previous year’s 16-loss team, he also had to help UCLA’s returning talent transition between two unusually dissimilar regimes. Ex-UCLA coach Steve Alford prioritized skill and scoring but treated defense as a nuisance. Cronin’s best Cincinnati teams seldom lit up the scoreboard, but tough, physical defense was always a hallmark.

The culture shock was a major reason Cronin warned fans before the season that UCLA would likely be a work in progress for awhile. He knew he couldn’t introduce fundamentals, eliminate bad habits and lay a foundation for the future in one offseason, especially not with guards Tyger Campbell and David Singleton coming off major injuries that sidelined them into the fall.

“You’re changing so many things at one time that it’s hard to go out and also win games,” Cronin said.

“We practiced the right way the whole time, but it took time for us to learn how to win games, how to take better shots, how to throw simpler passes, how to execute offense, how to not leave our man and gamble for no reason on defense. We had to learn that’s the stuff that gets you beat. Talent doesn’t win. Playing winning basketball wins.”

There was no Disney-style speech that sparked UCLA’s turnaround, no breakthrough moment that inspired the Bruins to play with the effort and discipline their new coach demanded. Cronin instead points to a lineup switch, a gradual change in habits and a much-needed dose of humility as factors in UCLA’s metamorphosis.

The humility was a natural byproduct of UCLA’s rocky 8-9 start, unacceptable at any power conference program let alone one so tradition-rich. Cronin hammered home that message by making the Bruins wear practice gear without any UCLA logos after the Fullerton loss and by offering a particularly scathing assessment of his team in his news conference after a subsequent January home loss to Stanford.

He called his players soft and selfish. He questioned their toughness. In a thinly veiled reference to fifth-year senior guard Prince Ali, he wondered aloud how it was possible that UCLA’s most experienced players were some of the team’s worst defenders.

“Which is really ridiculous because it’s not like they didn’t do scouting reports before me,” Cronin told reporters that night. “If you’re in your fifth year, you should know how to play defense by now.”

Around that same time, Cronin removed Ali from his starting five and ceded much of his playing time to high-energy David Singleton and sharpshooting Jake Kyman. He also reinserted top defensive big man Jalen Hill into the starting lineup in place of Cody Riley, a move that has since brought out the best in both of them.

From mid-January on, UCLA has defended and rebounded better as a team and received key contributions from up and down the roster. Chris Smith carried the Bruins to their first win over Colorado. Jaime Jaquez splashed a last-second 3-pointer to avenge a previous loss to Arizona State. Campbell has tallied a staggering 33 assists and four turnovers in his past three games.

If UCLA were to add another Quadrant 1 win Saturday at USC, it would certainly strengthen the Bruins’ case for an NCAA bid. Only once has a power conference regular-season champion been left out of the field — a 2012 Washington team that won a historically weak Pac-12.

Cronin says he won’t stoop to campaigning on UCLA’s behalf, but the coach who handed the Bruins their most embarrassing loss this season has no such qualms. Dedrique Taylor believes UCLA should be rewarded for how far it has come since then.

“They started out not so good but they’ve finished strong,” Taylor said. “The selection committee needs to give them credit for that.”

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