Upstart Wildcats vs. blue-blood Bruins is a study in contrasts

What makes this Northwestern team better equipped to go a step further and do what the team in 2017 failed to by advancing to the Sweet 16?

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Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — All weekend long the Northwestern Wildcats have exuded a childlike wonderment for the position they’ve put themselves in.

The Wildcats are for the second time in program history competing in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Whether it be the gleeful smiles they’ve been unable to mask, the nerves they’ve openly talked about or the joy they’ve felt from simply being here, the Wildcats reek of inexperience.

Standing opposite them is a program that could not be more opposite. The UCLA Bruins are formidable, poised and come with a level of mystique other programs have chased.

They aren’t happy to be here. They won’t be happy until they leave here with a ticket punched to the Sweet 16. That is unless Chris Collins’ little bunch that could have anything to say about it.

“Any program, whether its UCLA or the worst team in basketball, we’re just excited to have another opportunity to keep the season going,” Chase Audige said. “This is what kids dream about. To be playing on this stage is a blessing in its own right.”

That mentality is cute, really. But it’s a far cry from the energy UCLA is bringing into Saturday night’s matchup.

Mick Cronin, in his fourth season as coach of the Bruins, has a well-oiled machine running as designed and that’s without their Pac 12 defensive player of the year, Jaylen Clark. Of course with players like Jaime Jaquez Jr. — the seventh player in UCLA history to earn Pac-12 player of the year — it’s easy to see why.

“We train for this time of year,” Cronin said. “We don’t try to have a good season and then this is the icing on the cake. We train for this. Our intensity has gone up lately.”

With the obvious out of the way, and it is obvious that the Bruins have experience on their side, let’s get into the less certain but still very real possibility that NU pulls off the second upset of a No. 2 seed this tournament season.

There’s been a lot made of the 2017 Wildcats tournament team and their impact on this year’s squad. From group chats that debate which team would win a pickup game, to Bryant McIntosh, a member of that historic NU team serving on the coaching staff, this tournament team is not lacking a connection to the program’s past.

The question is what makes them better equipped to take NU a step further and do what the team in 2017 failed to do by advancing to the Sweet 16?

“It’s like having two children and they ask you who’s your favorite child,” Collins said.

It’s a tough question to answer, no doubt, but there is always an answer, right?

“Maybe so, but I’m not going to tell you,” Collins said laughing.

The 2016-17 team set the foundation, but this 2022-23 team wants to expand upon it. Their belief that they can is rooted in a similarity they share with that group: an unparalleled level of togetherness.

Senior forward Robbie Beran entertained the idea of what makes this team better prepared to advance more realistically. After he got it out of the way that this tourney team boasts better looks, he talked schematics.

“I don’t know if they had the post traps like we do,” Beran said. “A lot of it though is the pound-the-rock mantra we have. If you pound the rock 100 days and nothing breaks, but on the 101st day and it shatters, it’s not that you did anything different.”

Northwestern’s post traps were a point of emphasis in Cronin’s media availability. As was the team’s overall defense which he praised. What NU lacks in experience it makes up for in talent and according to Cronin. He said he’ll take talent over experience any day of the week.

Clark’s Achilles injury isn’t the only threat to the Bruins’ title hopes. Freshman forward Adem Bona has been sidelined with a left shoulder injury since the Pac-12 tournament semifinal against Oregon.

Before practice on Friday afternoon, he said he was feeling ready to go. Cronin didn’t confirm whether he would play.

“I’m going to have him do some stuff today to give me a comfort level of where he’s at,” Cronin said. “Some things that I haven’t asked him to do. I’m getting ready to test him out, more than I have.”

With or without Bona, NU has a steep uphill battle ahead.

While UCLA carries the weight of expectation, Northwestern comes in with the ease of having already accomplished more than anyone billed them for. That might be the key to making a major statement Saturday night.

“[I’ve told the team] don’t make the game bigger than it is,” Collins said. “When we were here last time, when we played Gonzaga, I thought early in the game it was a little too big. I want the guys to just go out there and play ball.”

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