All Ball Sports: UCLA ballers aiming for the Big Easy, Jansen’s gone, but could be back          

Dodger relief pitcher Kenley Jansen, with wife Gianni, demonstrates his signature cut fastball grip to Redondo Beach Mayor Steve Aspel, (left) and Councilwoman Martha Barbee in 2017, when he moved to Redondo Beach. Photo by Kevin Cody

by Paul Teetor

Two victories down and four to go.

That’s the situation the fourth-seeded UCLA men’s basketball team finds itself in after a wild weekend. They trailed for the entire game against 13th seeded Akron before waking up and stealing a victory at the last second, and then dominated 5th seeded St. Mary’s to make it to the Sweet 16.

As if that wasn’t sweet enough news for Bruins fans, there was even better news coming out of their East Regional: top-seeded and defending national champion Baylor, as well as second-seeded Kentucky were knocked out of the tournament in major upsets this weekend.

In other words, the two biggest obstacles blocking the Bruins’ path to another final Four slot, the two teams that they would have had to beat in consecutive games next weekend if the seedings had held up, were eliminated in two of the biggest upsets in NCAA history.

Indeed, when 15th seeded St. Peters, a New Jersey college of less than 2,000 students, knocked out mighty Kentucky in the first round, Kentucky Coach John Calipari apologized to Kentucky fans for allowing such a monumental upset on his watch.

Meanwhile, UCLA fans immediately realized that this was great news. What not so long ago seemed like a delusional mirage – that the fourth-seeded Bruins could repeat their Final Four run of last spring – not only now looks doable, but it also appears they could go one step further and make it to the championship game.

And once they’re in the championship game, anything can happen.

Next stop: Philadelphia, where they will have to win two more games, starting with North Carolina Friday night in a classic battle of traditional hoops heavyweights.

Then, if all goes well, they will probably have to play third-seeded Purdue, which takes on St. Peters in its Sweet 16 game. All Ball has a strong hunch that St. Peters incredible string of inspiring upsets, which are the very essence of March madness, will come to an inevitable end against Purdue, which boasts one of the five best players in the country in super-quick guard Jaden Ivey, and also has a massive front line that should overwhelm the much smaller Peacocks.

If the Bruins get past both North Carolina and Purdue to win the East Regional, they will head to the Big Easy, home of the NCAA final Four, where they could win UCLA’s first national title since 1995.

Of course, there is a little bump in the road that could turn into a giant boulder depending on what happens during the five days before they have to play North Carolina.

Their best player, Jaime Jaquez, sprained his right ankle mid-way through the second half against St. Mary’s Saturday afternoon. He limped off the court, went into the hallway for treatment, and then came back to sit on the bench with a big bag of ice on the sprained ankle. 

He did not go back in the game, and it is uncertain if he will be able to play Friday night. But given his status as the team’s toughest player with the biggest heart, it says here that he will play.

Or at least he will try to play. How effective he will be on a bad ankle – after having injured both ankles during the season – is still up in the air. Fortunately, his game is not based on jumping or dunking, but rather on positioning, shot making, toughness and great defense.

Coach Mick Cronin, however, had no doubts about his best player’s status come Friday night. “If he can walk,” Cronin said Sunday, 24 hours after the injury. “He’ll play.”        

Up to the point when he was injured, he had been sensational, carrying the Bruins offense on his broad back when last year’s offensive hero, shooting guard Johnny Juzang, continued his shockingly inept play. The uber-confident guy who could make any shot from anywhere last spring – especially a mid-range pull-up jumper that he hardly ever missed – was nowhere to be seen this spring.

So that put the scoring burden on Jaquez, and he responded with his best game of the season – until he fell to the floor in agony. On possession after possession in the first half, UCLA patiently worked the ball inside to Jaquez, where he would go into his bag of tricks – a spin move here, multiple ball fakes there, and finally a step-back jumper that nestled gently into the basket – to score 15 points in the first half.

St. Mary’s had been stubbornly refusing to double-team Jaquez, but in the second half they finally did the smart thing and forced UCLA to look elsewhere for points. And amazingly that’s exactly when Juzang finally started to resemble the compulsive volume shooter, and go-to bucket-maker from last spring.

After connecting on only one of his first five shots, Juzang finally hit a foul-line jumper and suddenly he got his confidence back. First he hit a baseline 12-foot-jumper from the left side, then a minute later he hit a 15-foot baseline jumper from the right side. Suddenly, everything he threw up was going in, and just in time. UCLA’s lead grew even while its best player was watching from the sidelines. As far as Bruins fans were concerned, this was one more omen that their mojo was finally back. 

With Juzang filling the go-to scorer role he had starred in a year ago, everyone else on the team was able to stop trying to do too much, and simply revert to the roles they had established last spring during their magic carpet ride.

Point guard Tyger Campbell ran the show, and put everyone in a position to succeed. Center Cody Riley went back to playing road-block defense instead of trying to score all the time. Forward Jules Bernard, who had earned Coach Mick Cronin’s wrath by throwing up some wild three-point shots that had no chance, went back to attacking the basket and creating good shots for himself and others.                         

And of course there were some new contributors that weren’t part of the magic last spring. The Bruins’ super freshman, Payton Watson out of Long Beach Poly, played some lock-down defense and hit a key three-pointer. Center Myles Johnson, who transferred in from Rutgers, gave Riley some good backup minutes at center, and played stifling defense against St. Mary’s front-line.

The 72-56 win over St. Mary’s in the second round was the first time all year that this year’s Bruins truly resembled those Final Four Bruins from a year ago. But if they do manage to get to the Final Four and beyond this year, it will be the first round 57-53 win over Akron that will be seen as the fork-in-the-road game that could have gone in either direction: to a championship or to a quick exit and a bitter off-season full of recriminations and tough questions.

With less than eight minutes to play in a brutal, low-scoring game, the Bruins trailed by eight points and looked scared, directionless and lacking leadership. Jaquez was playing well, but somehow it was not contagious. Everyone else was playing not to lose – playing passively, waiting for Akron to give them the game rather than asserting their superiority. Coach Cronin could barely contain his anger during repeated timeouts. He railed at his players for their poor defense and mindless offense, which consisted mainly of dribbling around and hoisting up long jump shots.

But as the clock wound down toward two minutes left, two huge plays turned it around for the Bruins. First, Jaquez grabbed an offensive rebound at the foul line. Normally he would have shot it without hesitation. But his winner’s instinct told him to look at the left corner, where Campbell stood all alone behind the three-point line. Jaquez threw him the ball, Campbell swished a trifecta, and suddenly the Bruins had life and had crawled within two points.

A minute later Jaquez scrambled to pick up a loose ball a foot behind the three-point line at the top of the key. Again, he would normally have taken the shot as the clock wound down. But instead, he shoveled it back to Campbell, who stood four feet behind him, 24 feet from the basket, in NBA 3-point land. 

Once Again Campbell, who worked all summer on improving his three-point shot, calmly swished a trifecta, giving him eight points out of the Bruins 18-6 game-closing run. The magic was back and they all felt it.

“We didn’t panic,” said Bernard moments after the game. “We’ve been in those positions before, last year in the tournament. So we know what that feeling is like, and we just tried to stay composed as best as possible, and knew that our effort and toughness would pull us through.”

Earlier in the week Cronin got a lucrative extension on his contract after rumors started spreading on the internet that other big-time programs were reaching out   to gauge his interest.

In this case, UCLA made the right move. Cronin may not be the second coming of John Wooden, but he’s a very good coach who commands respect from his players, makes smart in-game adjustments, and has revived the once-proud program after the no-hope Steve Alford era. 

USC’s lost weekend

While UCLA was taking the first two steps toward repeating its Final Four run of a year ago, USC was stumbling out the gate in its quest to repeat its run to the Elite Eight a year ago.

Seeded seventh in the Midwest Regional, the Trojans fell way behind 10th seeded Miami Friday night, made a stirring comeback, but lost the game when a last-second, miracle 3-point shot that would have won the game banked in but then popped out.

When all the yelling and screaming was over, the scoreboard read Miami 68, USC 66 and the Trojans postseason run was over before it ever really got started.

It was fitting that the last shot, the potential game winner that wasn’t, was taken by senior guard/forward Drew Peterson, who had just hit two three-pointers in the previous 30 seconds to wipe out a 6-point Miami lead. But a very questionable foul call gave Miami two foul shots for a two-point margin that proved to be the difference in the final score.                  

Peterson led the Trojans with 17 points, followed by precocious freshman Reese Dixon-Waters with 16, and Isaiah Mobley with 11. It was fitting that the unheralded Peterson, who transferred in from Rice University before last season, took the last shot because he was the Trojans best player all game. Indeed, he was their best player all season – not Mobley, who was projected to be the main man before the season began on the premise that he would be able to step into his brother’s shoes.      

Evan Mobley, after all, had won the triple crown of PAC-12 awards last season – player of the year, freshman of the year and defensive player of the year. But over the last three years Isaiah Mobley has proven he is just as tall as his 6-foot-11 brother, but not nearly as talented.

After his stellar freshman season, Evan Mobley, who led the Trojans to the Elite Eight last spring, was picked third overall in the NBA draft by the Cleveland Cavaliers. He is now the frontrunner to win NBA Rookie of the Year.

Isaiah Mobley? He’s not even projected as a first or second round pick in any of the NBA mock drafts that sprout up like mushrooms this time of year. So while the mainstream media reports that he is “mulling over” whether to forgo his senior season and declare for the NBA draft, the reality is he would be smarter to come back to USC and work on his game.

His father, USC assistant coach Eric Mobley, should be giving him that same advice. Just because your brother is a star doesn’t mean that you are too.                           

USC Coach Andy Enfield also received a lucrative contract extension this week, also in reaction to reports that other big-time schools were interested in hiring him away from USC.

But other than hiring Eric Mobley, who was minimally qualified, three years ago as an assistant coach with the hope and expectation that his two five-star recruit sons would follow him here, Enfield has done little to warrant the extension.

He has not established local recruiting dominance over UCLA. The top local prep player, Amari Bailey of Sierra Canyon, long ago committed to attend UCLA next year despite heavy recruiting by Enfield. 

USC’s limited success of the last two years was built on the talents of Evan Mobley and a bunch of players brought in through the transfer portal, like Peterson and Boogie Ellis, who came in from Memphis, started the year great, and then faded down the stretch and did little in the postseason.

In other words, he has not built the solid foundation, the mix of elite one-and-done players and solid four-year players that any college program needs to sustain year-after-year success.

Unless he’s able to offer an assistant’s job to the father of the next big-time talent to come out of SoCal, it’s hard to see how USC even makes it to the Elite Eight in the next few years, to say nothing of the Final Four.

Dodgers, Braves still battling

Six months after the Atlanta Braves beat the Dodgers in the postseason, they are now battling in the pre-season.

Officially, all-Star first baseman Freddie Freeman going from the Braves to the Dodgers and star closer Kenley Jansen going from the Dodgers to the Braves had no connection. There was no trade, just two coveted free agents each deciding to leave the only team they had ever played for and move to the opposite coast.

That it was the World Champion Braves who eliminated the defending World Champion Dodgers in last season’s League Championship Series? Or that it was the Dodgers who eliminated the Braves in the 2018 NLCS or the 2020 NLCS?

Pure coincidence. Or at least that’s the story publicly.    

Of course, the real story is a little more complicated.

Turns out Freeman wanted to stay with the Braves and Jansen wanted to stay with the Dodgers. Both of them flat out said so once the dust cleared and they were with their new teams.

But as always in pro sports – and increasingly in “amateur sports” too – it all came down to money. The issue wasn’t what each of them was worth for a single season. Their market value had already been established.

The sticking point for both of them was the length of their next contract: Freeman, 32, wanted six years. Jansen, 34, wanted three years.

After 12 outstanding years with the Braves, they wanted to give Freeman less than six years. After 12 mostly outstanding years with the Dodgers, they wanted to give Jansen less than three years.

In the end, Freeman made his difficult decision first. He signed the Dodgers offer of 6 years for $162 million. The 6-foot-5 slugger is a five-time All Star, Gold Glove winner, and MVP of the 2020 season. He says he expected to retire as a Brave and was insulted by the way the Braves handled his contract negotiations.

That gave the Dodgers the opening they were looking for. It also gave the Braves some spare cash, which they used to offer Jansen a one-year deal for $16 million, with a catch – he had to give them an answer very soon.

Tired of waiting for the Dodgers to come up with the 3-year offer he wanted, he took the Braves deal. His family, however, will remain in their house up on The Hill.

Jansen is the Dodgers all time saves leader with 350, but this was one sticky situation he couldn’t pitch his way out of. And for Dodgers fans who hate to see him go, remember: it’s only a one-year deal.

There’s nothing to prevent him from coming back here next year.

Contact: Follow: @paulteetor. ER


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