UCLA faces long odds in Las Vegas to sustain Mick Cronin's NCAA tournament streak

Mick Cronin’s team had lost five of its last six regular-season games, its offense failing to keep pace with a sturdy defense. The coach vowed to find other players who could get the job done if his current ones continued to falter.

Sound familiar?

The year was 2010. Cronin was coaching at Cincinnati. It was the last time he missed the NCAA tournament.

A repeat scenario could play out this week unless Cronin’s fifth-seeded UCLA Bruins (15-16) get on a roll and win the final Pac-12 Conference tournament at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, the resulting automatic bid providing their only possible path to the NCAA tournament.

Cronin has been to 12 consecutive NCAA tournaments — nine with the Bearcats, three with the Bruins — since his 2009-10 team won two games in the Big East tournament before falling to West Virginia and advancing to the second round of the National Invitation Tournament.

“I take a lot of pride in that,” Cronin said recently of an NCAA tournament streak matched only by Gonzaga’s Mark Few, Michigan State’s Tom Izzo and Kansas’ Bill Self.

The likelihood of Cronin sustaining his streak seems remote, one online betting site giving the Bruins 40-1 odds — ahead of only Stanford (66-1), California (100-1), Arizona State (150-1) and Oregon State (300-1) — to win the Pac-12 tournament.

Failing to secure a top-four seed and the resulting first-round bye in the Pac-12 tournament will make Cronin’s bid to keep playing deeper into March unlikely but not unprecedented. In the dozen years of the tournament’s current format, two teams have made the march from first round to quarterfinals to semifinals to champion.

They had more in common than winning four games in as many days.

In 2012, sixth-seeded Colorado rode the standout play of guard Carlon Brown and his electrifying dunks to the title.

In 2019, sixth-seeded Oregon relied on across-the-board contributions from Payton Pritchard, the point guard’s passes, scoring and rebounding carrying the Ducks to the championship.

Brown and Pritchard were both selected the tournament’s most valuable player in those respective years while helping their teams secure an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.

Could UCLA’s Dylan Andrews be the next guard to carry his team on an improbable run?

The sophomore has been playing some of his best basketball of the season recently, averaging 18 points and 4.8 assists to go with 1.8 turnovers over his last four games.

His jumper and three-pointer helped spark the Bruins’ late 18-1 run against Arizona State that vaulted UCLA into a first-round game against No. 12 Oregon State (13-18) at 2:30 p.m. Wednesday.

If the Bruins can get past the Beavers, they would face No. 4 seed Oregon on Thursday in a quarterfinal. Top-seeded Arizona could be waiting in a semifinal on Friday unless the Wildcats are upset by No. 8 seed USC or No. 9 seed Washington.

Cronin said who his team plays doesn’t matter as much as how it plays, recalling Connecticut guard Kemba Walker lifting his team to five wins in the Big East tournament in 2011 followed by six more victories and an NCAA tournament championship.

So the coach is saying the Bruins still have a chance?

“Hell yeah!” Cronin said recently.

What’s it going to take? Cronin outlined a three-point plan with reporters Tuesday, saying the Bruins needed to be the best defensive team in the tournament, shoot a high percentage and have their top players shine.

That was the case last weekend, when UCLA held Arizona State to four points over the final 9½ minutes, made seven of 11 three-point shots in the second half and got 20 points and 12 rebounds from Adem Bona along with 12 points and six assists from Andrews.

In a season when so much has gone wrong, with the Bruins on the verge of their first losing record since 2015-16, nearly everything will need to go right for the team to keep playing beyond this week. Cronin has intimated that UCLA might decline an NIT bid, preferring to accelerate the recovery of injured players while also mining the transfer portal for newcomers.

“It’s one and done, pretty much,” UCLA guard Lazar Stefanovic said of the urgency facing his team. “You win or you go home. And we don’t want to go home. So, we’ve got to stick together and go one by one and try to win the whole thing.”

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