UCLA’s toughness and resolve will be tested on the ugly road to the Final Four

(Jack C. Gregory / The Times)

It’s called “The Road to the Final Four,” but the day UCLA received its coordinates, it sure took notice.

They weren’t exactly located on a road. They were placed in a narrow, winding stretch of mud and rock. They were placed on a potholed road, apparently leading directly to a ditch.

Boise State is there. That’s where Gonzaga is. There’s—gasp—Kansas.

In the NCAA men’s basketball tournament duals announced Sunday, the Bruins were placed in the toughest region against the toughest teams and must compete without potentially two of their toughest players.

In other words, they were put on the wheel of coach Mick Cronin.

This is going to be hard, it could be ugly, and he and his Bruins can’t wait.

“We try to create a culture of no excuses,” Cronin told reporters Sunday afternoon. “I try to teach them about their lives as well. If you have tenacity and the desire to put in the work, you can get where you want to be.’

It suddenly looks like where they want to go is far from here, with defensive leader Jaylen Clark out for the season with a lower leg injury and big man Adem Bona dealing with a sore shoulder, but Cronin was unfazed.

“You know, there’s a way to win a game,” he said. “There’s always a way to win a game, whether Jaylen Clark is out, Adem is out, God forbid someone else. There is always a way to win a game. It might not be that easy, your margin for error might not be that big. But there’s still a way to beat the game, if you’re willing to be tough enough to do so. And these guys are because they want to win. That’s what they’re doing.”

Yes, in light of Sunday’s announcement, the Bruins can celebrate being the No. 2 seed in the West Region. In fact, they could play the first two games in Sacramento, and if they’re still alive, they’ll play the next two in Las Vegas, which is all great stuff.

But have you checked who they can play with? Wondering how they’ll survive the combination of bruisers and missing players?

UCLA guard Amari Bailey shoots Arizona's Cedric Henderson Jr.

UCLA guard Amari Bailey has Cedric Henderson Jr. He shoots over the Arizona guard in the second half of the Bruins’ win on March 4.

(Ringo HW Chiu/Associated Press)

UCLA ran the gauntlet two seasons ago when they went from an 11th seed to the Final Four in the play-in game.

Honestly, they will have to do something like this again. Playing without Clark and a hampered Bona, the Bruins will have to navigate this “road” with whatever delicacy Cronin can muster.

Again, Jaime Jaquez Jr. and Tyger Campbell and David Singleton’s latest dance combo can’t wait.

“I know the three of us have had a lot of conversations about this being our last year together and embracing it,” Jaquez told reporters. “This is one last chance for something to happen, our backs are against the wall now, we’re sorry, but we’re embracing it, we’re taking whatever comes.”

First, North Carolina Asheville, the 15th seed in the 140 NET rankings and yet a team that could at least surprise. The Bulldogs have won 18 of their last 19 games and can take advantage of Bona’s limitations with one of the nation’s best big men in Drew Pember, a 6-foot-10 senior who averages 21 points and nine rebounds a game.

“We know you can’t take anything for granted,” Singleton said. “We need to give 100% effort in every game in this tournament starting with UNC Asheville.”

Next, here’s Boise State beating Northwestern and the Bruins bringing their No. 29 NET ranking with wins over Texas A&M, Washington State and Colorado. The Broncos signed Marcus Shaver Jr. in March. and he also leads the kind of winning point guard combo with Max Rice.

“We have to make sure … our gas is ready,” Cronin said.

The Bruins can and should survive those first two games, but it could be dangerous, and their reward could be absolutely deflating. Awaiting them in Las Vegas could be an old foe and defending champion.

Do they really want to play Gonzaga again? Especially now? The Bulldogs have a NET ranking of six and their only three losses since late November have come by one point or in overtime. They are led by 6-10 forward Drew Timme, who has apparently been in college for the past decade.

This is the year that, for once, nobody really paid attention to Gonzaga. One would imagine this could be the year the Bulldogs finally win a national championship.

Do you know who could win another national title, becoming only the third champion to repeat in 50 years? Kansas is back and, despite its blown-up coach Bill Self in the hospital against Texas in the Big 12 championship game, it’s still Kansas.

The Jayhawks played the toughest schedule in the country, led the country with 17 Quad 1 wins, and experienced Jalen Wilson and Dajuan Harris Jr.

UCLA coach Mick Cronin yells instructions to his players during the win over Oregon.

UCLA coach Mick Cronin yells instructions to his players during Friday’s Pac-12 tournament semifinal win over Oregon.

(Chase Stevens/Associated Press)

If nothing else, if they can make it to the glitzy region of Las Vegas, the Bruins can pull off a sweat-stained experience this weekend in the Pac-12 Championship.

They came within one free throw and missed a wide-open three-point attempt in defeating No. 8 Arizona in Saturday night’s championship game despite having four key players on the bench. Apart from Clark and Bona, their two other big men, Mac Etienne and Kenneth Nwuba, were also missing.

The relentless quartet of freshmen Jaquez Jr., Campbell, Singleton and Amari Bailey nearly beat the huge and talented Wildcats. The next three weeks will require every effort and more to survive.

“We have to have a short memory, improve, figure out the things we have to do, watch the film and move on from there,” said Jaquez.

They will be joined in the madness by another team from Los Angeles, that being USC. Despite going undefeated against Arizona State in the Pac-12 tournament, the Trojans entered the tournament as the No. 10 seed in the East, but aren’t expected to last long.

If they beat tournament guru Tom Izzo and Michigan State in the first round — a chance Drew Peterson’s back is released — they’ll face strong No. 2 Marquette, the team many have picked to make it to the title weekend.

For the two locals, “The Road To The Final Four” should be nothing but a curvy adventure.

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