There has never been a bigger David versus Goliath showdown like this in the Final Four, never been a spread as high as 14 points.
UCLA will have to play the perfect game against the perfect team in the national semifinals on Saturday night against 30-0 Gonzaga for the chance to meet the Baylor-Houston winner on Monday night.
UCLA coach Mike Cronin was comparing Jalen Suggs to Dwyane Wade on Friday, and the way the Bulldogs pass the ball to the championship Spurs and Warriors. And yet, the Bruins won’t forfeit the game.
“We’ll show up,” Cronin said.
One Mad March night three years ago at the Spectrum Center in Charlotte, N.C., UMBC showed up and became the first — and only — 16th seed to beat a No. 1 seed, Virginia … as a 20.5-point underdog.
Should 11th-seeded UCLA bother to show up? Does UCLA has a chance against this well-oiled machine chasing history (even if the mighty Zags might not actually put their pants on one leg at a time)?
“Yeah there’s always a chance, no question,” UMBC coach Ryan Odom told The Post by phone. “We’re not playing seven-game series like the NBA. Certain teams match up well with others, and certain teams don’t, and the styles don’t match. … I think one of the things that will always give UCLA a chance no matter who they’re playing is just their defense. Now the question is can they score enough to stay in the game against that potent offense?”
Cronin may not be the Wizard of Westwood — John Wooden has the patent on that one — but he has changed the culture and will unleash a fearless, resilient, defiant, mentally tough and physically tough band of junkyard dogs against the Zags. Gonzaga coach Mark Few has told his team to expect a rock fight.
“One of my dad’s quotes that he used to always share with me,” said Odom, the son of longtime college coach Dave Odom, “is once you step inside those lines, there’s nowhere to hide, no matter what sport you’re playing. We knew what we were up against, but that didn’t mean we were just gonna give in. Our whole philosophy was ‘Why not us?’ ”
Odom was asked what he would tell the UCLA players if he were their coach.
“No. 1, we’re UCLA,” he said, and laughed. “I would be confident if I were them. They’re there for a reason. They’re playing really well right now. They should have nothing to fear. One of the things that you would definitely say to this team is, ‘There’s no pressure on us. Everyone’s expecting Gonzaga to win, it’s just a foregone conclusion that that’s happening. And so how cool would be to be the team that goes in there that changes that? Why can’t we do it?’ ”
With UMBC’s game against Virginia tied at 21-21 at the half, senior guard Jairus Lyles erupted for 23 of his 28 points in the second half to demoralize the Cavaliers as an incredulous crowd rallied to UMBC’s side.
What kind of a chance does UCLA have?
“They made it to the Final Four for a reason, so I think they have a good chance, but it’ll be a tough one for ‘em for sure,” Lyles told The Post by phone. “UCLA’s probably gonna have to play their best game yet to beat Gonzaga.”
Lyles was asked what he would tell the UCLA players.
“Play free,” he said. “Don’t be too caught up in the moment, it’s just basketball at the end of the day, so go out there, have fun, play free, and leave it all out on the table.”
Lyles’ old UMBC teammate, Joe Sherburne, is convinced that will not be enough.
“I don’t think they have any chance,” he told The Post by phone. He was reminded that no one thought UMBC had a chance against Virginia.
“Yeah … I wouldn’t have said we were gonna win either,” Sherburne said.
It was 36 years ago when Ed Pinckney exulted at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Ky., the night Villanova, an 8-point underdog, shocked Patrick Ewing’s Georgetown and the world.
“All it takes is for Gonzaga not to play their best, and for UCLA to continue to play the way they’ve been playing,” Pinckney said. “They’ve got a great corps of forwards that can really score, so anytime you have that, where guys are playing with great confidence … and their coach, he’s a wizard.
“I give UCLA a shot for sure.”
Cronin and his pugnacious Bruins are not just happy to be here. They will play to win.
“We haven’t necessarily seen Gonzaga be hit a lot and kinda roughed up,” Odom said. “I still think Gonzaga will win, but they’ll be tested more.”
Johnny Juzang and Jaime Jaquez Jr. will need to rain down 3-pointers.
“UCLA has got enough random scorers who can score at the end of a shot clock, who can create their own shot, that they can pull off the upset,” Pinckney said.
The Bruins will try to slow things down and blunt he Zags’ deadly transition game. Pinckney was asked what he would tell the UCLA players.
“I would basically tell them to just play free,” Pinckney said. “Have fun, and enjoy the moment. Just go out there and play loose.
“They can kinda go into the game with an attitude like, ‘Hey, nobody’s expecting us to win, let’s just go out here and prove everybody wrong,’ and that gives you a great edge when you go out on the floor.”
It might be the Bruins’ only edge. They’ll show up anyway. Goliath is not invincible.