Before every game, Jaime Jaquez Jr. and David Singleton make their moves.
Facing each other after walking onto the court for warmups, the UCLA seniors start with a little jig. Feet shuffling, knees bending, they bop back and forth in rhythm, each cradling a ball.
Jaquez whirls toward the basket, bouncing his ball high off the court with both hands before spinning around to collect it. He lowers himself into a deep crouch, Singleton mimicking his motion, before dribbling behind his back and going in for a layup.
They’ve been doing the same routine all season. At some point, whether they go out in a first-round NCAA tournament upset or reach the Final Four, it really will be their last dance alongside fellow senior Tyger Campbell.
Pregame dance for UCLA’s Jaime Jaquez Jr. and David Singleton ahead of Pac-12 tournament semifinal win over Oregon on Friday.
If all goes well, the trio will sashay their way from Sacramento to Las Vegas to Houston as part of the Bruins’ first national championship run since 1995, not to mention a proper farewell to one another.
“We talked about it. I think we’ve acknowledged it,” Jaquez said Sunday after UCLA (29-5) learned it had earned a No. 2 seed in the West Region and would open the NCAA tournament against No. 15 North Carolina Asheville (27-7) on Thursday night at Golden 1 Center in Sacramento. “I know us three have had a lot of conversations about this being our last year together and just embracing it.
“This is one final chance to make something happen. Our backs are against the wall right now, we feel like, but we’re embracing it. We take everything that comes with it.”
The Bruins’ seed is their best since they were No. 1 in the West in 2008 on the way to a third consecutive Final Four under another famously defense-obsessed coach. That coach reconnected with the program this season, Ben Howland attending games and practices while stressing the importance of securing the top seed in the West.
This team came close, edging Arizona for the region both had coveted in a fascinating case study. The Wildcats’ victory over the Bruins in the Pac-12 tournament championship game Saturday night was their second in three head-to-head meetings. Arizona also could claim more impressive nonconference victories and a fully intact roster.
UCLA presumably prevailed because it won the conference’s regular-season title in a four-game runaway, notched more victories than any other Power Five conference team and played a compelling brand of basketball without top players. Coach Mick Cronin confirmed every Bruins fan’s greatest fear when asked about star defender Jaylen Clark’s status for the next three weeks after he missed the Pac-12 tournament because of a lower-leg injury.
“He’s out,” Cronin said.
More promising was the status of freshman center Adem Bona, who missed the last 1½ games because of a left shoulder injury. Cronin said Bona was not nearly as sore Sunday as he had been the previous day, leading to a “much more optimistic” outlook for his availability against the Bulldogs, who have won 18 of their last 19 games after sweeping through the Big South Conference tournament.
“Just knowing him, how he is,” Cronin said, “it’d take a lot to keep him off the floor.”
What’s perhaps most promising for these Bruins is their ability to persevere no matter who’s available. They closed out Arizona without Clark in their final regular-season game and nearly toppled the Wildcats a week later without Clark and Bona.
“We try to create a no-excuses culture,” Cronin said. “I try to teach them that about their life too. If you have the toughness, and the willingness to put in the work, you can get where you want to go.”
That ethos didn’t just come from their coach. Jaquez, Singleton and Campbell have also demanded accountability, Singleton getting on Cronin about avoiding an ejection last month after picking up a technical foul against Stanford. Campbell knew that a softer touch was needed Saturday when he consoled freshman Dylan Andrews after an empty offensive possession against Arizona.
Cronin pointed to the seniors’ ability to make the right plays in crunch time as a big reason why his team has won 12 of its last 13 games. He mentioned Campbell’s ability to draw a foul to ensure the Bruins would have a chance to tie the score against Arizona on Saturday while down two points and Jaquez finding Andrews for an open three-pointer at the end of the game instead of trying to play through a triple team.
Everyone’s pulling in the same direction, thanks in part to those four letters on the front of their chests.
“When you play here, you wear the most important jersey in the history of college basketball,” Cronin said. “You’re not gonna put on a jersey that means any more in college basketball than it does here.”
That’s not to say that even the toughest of Bruins don’t get sentimental.
“I’m well aware that this is the last dance for these guys together,” Cronin said, “but we are going to file a petition as soon as the season’s over for Dave to come back.”