Three reasons why Elite Eight-bound UCLA, a No. 11 seed bubble team, has emerged as a men’s Final Four dark horse

UCLA hardly looks the part of a No. 11 seed that escaped the men's NCAA Tournament bubble.

Following an 88-78 upset of No. 2 Alabama in overtime on Sunday, the Bruins (21-9) have now defeated four teams in the men's NCAA Tournament to reach the Elite Eight.

It was reasonable to consider UCLA an upstart double-digit seed after it stormed back from a 14-point deficit to knock out Michigan State in a play-in game and then followed it up with a first-round upset of Brigham Young. It was reasonable to conclude the Bruins got a fortunate draw against an out-of-steam Abilene Christian team. 

But after the grind-it-out victory over the SEC champion Crimson Tide, there's no more arguing with the Bruins being a legitimate contender in March Madness – regardless of the seed. 

A look at why UCLA has emerged as a Final Four dark horse: 

Tyger Campbell of the UCLA Bruins celebrates with Johnny Juzang and Jaime Jaquez Jr. against the Alabama Crimson Tide during the first half in the Sweet Sixteen round game of the 2021 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Hinkle Fieldhouse. (Photo: Sarah Stier, Getty Images)

1. Mick Cronin toughness and grit

Cronin spent 13 seasons at Cincinnati and was criticized for only getting the Bearcats to one Sweet 16 trip and often under-performing their seed in the NCAAs. That skepticism overlooked why UCLA made the wise hire bringing in Cronin: He's an excellent coach who gets the most out of his team, and that's been validated by this surprise Elite Eight trip – better than predecessor Steve Alford ever did with more talent. The Bruins on Sunday looked like a carbon copy of some of Cronin's Cincinnati teams of the past that play with a grit and tenacity that out-toughs opponents. That also fosters resiliency on display as the team held on to defeat Alabama in overtime despite its best player, Johnny Juzang, being fouled out and a demoralizing buzzer-beater that forced overtime.

Cronin's group has been counter-punching all tournament and plays with a chip on its shoulder. Jaime Jaquez Jr. (17 points in the win over the Tide) was a Cincinnati recruit who followed Cronin to Westwood, and he serves as the team's backbone with his hustle. Point guard Tyger Campbell, off guard Jules Bernard and big man Cody Riley all play with a similar fire. 

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2. Balanced, efficient offense 

UCLA is now 13-0 when it commits less than 10 turnovers, as the Bruins only had eight in the overtime win over Alabama. Taking care of the ball is a high emphasis in a Cronin practice, and those costly miscues that have cost some of the best teams in this tournament end up keeping UCLA close in ball games. Cronin also has multiple guys who can score in balanced fashion – highlighting a strong team chemistry. Against 'Bama, all five starters scored in double figures and David Singleton added 15 points off the bench. Cronin calls it a "judicious" style of play in slowing the tempo for an efficient half-court offense that throws up-tempo teams like Alabama out of their normal potency. 

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3. Defense

Cronin's teams have always been strong defensively and this year's Bruins team is no different. But some of the lapses that cost UCLA to go on a four-game losing streak before entering this tournament – including an overtime loss to Elite-Eight bound Oregon State in the Pac-12 Tournament – have been adjusted in the NCAAs. Had the Bruins not shut down Michigan State in their play-in game, they wouldn't be here. They limited a gifted BYU offense to 62 points and smothered Abilene Christian into 47 points. Then against Alabama, UCLA got the stops it needed to advance. 

Follow college basketball reporter Scott Gleeson on Twitter @ScottMGleeson. 

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