Every morning before school, and each night before bed, the eighth-grader would read the messages taped to his bedroom closet.
The words, and the handwriting, were familiar, Johnny Juzang having penned each letter to himself as an ode to his basketball ambitions.
Make a Final Four. Win a national championship. Win a title at the highest level.
It’s starting to play out as scripted, Juzang having commenced a celebratory jig, slipped on a commemorative T-shirt and placed a freshly shorn net around his neck late Tuesday night inside Lucas Oil Stadium.
Juzang’s UCLA Bruins are going to the Final Four.
That’s not to say that the sophomore guard ever foresaw anything like this.
Even Juzang, who visualized success to push himself through hours of drudgery on the practice court and in the weight room, couldn’t have predicted the way he has carried his team on this deep NCAA tournament run only one season after having averaged 2.9 points per game as a freshman at Kentucky.
Juzang exceeded his Kentucky season point total (82) exclusively in the NCAA tournament before halftime of the Bruins’ 51-49 victory over Michigan in the East Regional final. He has a tournament-high 108 points to go with a tournament-leading 21.6 points per game among the remaining teams.
All those points came with Juzang missing parts of two games with an ankle injury and the entire overtime against Alabama in a regional semifinal after having fouled out.
“It’s pretty surreal to be in the Final Four now,” Juzang told The Times by telephone Wednesday, having led the Bruins to their deepest NCAA tournament run since 2008, “after I had written that down so many years ago.”
Being a breakout star on college basketball’s biggest stage has its privileges. UCLA legend Reggie Miller tweeted video footage of Juzang hugging teammate Cody Riley after Juzang scored 28 points during an upset of the top-seeded Wolverines. Cleveland Cavaliers forward Kevin Love, a member of the Bruins’ 2008 Final Four team, tweeted his admiration.
Kentucky’s John Calipari, who spurned UCLA’s overtures for its coaching vacancy two years ago before Mick Cronin took the job, also passed along his congratulations on social media, telling Juzang to fulfill another of his goals and “win it all.”
The 11th-seeded Bruins (22-9) are only two victories away after having slayed the top two seeds in their region, setting up another colossal challenge against top-seeded Gonzaga (30-0) on Saturday in a national semifinal.
Juzang’s father, Maxie, figures to be hoarse before tipoff after having cheered his son’s team through five consecutive victories, making UCLA only the second team after Virginia Commonwealth to advance from the First Four to a Final Four.
“I’m trying to take some tea right now,” Maxie Juzang said Wednesday morning.
Johnny’s play has provided all the soothing his family needed, especially after frightening everybody midway through the second half against the Wolverines. Juzang rolled his ankle after grabbing a rebound and hobbled off the court and onto a trainer’s table to have the ankle re-wrapped.
Having watched his leading scorer return only 10 days after being carried off the court because of the same bothersome ankle in a First Four game against Michigan State, Cronin figured Juzang would be back unless he was unable to walk.
“I needed him to hurry up, though,” Cronin said with a chuckle, alluding to Juzang having carried his team’s otherwise sluggish offense. “I told somebody, ‘Go get him or tell him I’m coming down there myself.’ ”
Sure enough, only moments after the last piece of tape was ripped off and Juzang put his shoe back on, he pounded himself on the chest twice and re-entered the game.
Juzang is never one to take a play — or a day — off, routinely following his team’s practices and weightlifting sessions with a drive into the San Fernando Valley for additional work with a player development coach.
He hails from a basketball family, his father having played in high school and an uncle having made the team at Carnegie Mellon University. His uncle-in-law trumps them all in star wattage, Michael Cooper having won five NBA championships with the Los Angeles Lakers.
Juzang played pickup games at the Galen Center when Cooper coached the USC women’s basketball team, but Juzang always dreamed of starring for the Trojans’ cross-town rival. He attended games at Pauley Pavilion during UCLA’s rocking Lonzo Ball season and envisioned himself similarly wowing fans when coach Steve Alford made Juzang a top recruiting priority.
But Alford’s firing midway through the 2018-19 season, combined with Juzang’s deciding to reclassify into an earlier graduating class, nudged Kentucky and Virginia into the lead among his suitors. By the time Cronin was hired and made his recruiting pitch, the Studio City Harvard-Westlake High standout was essentially headed to Lexington.
That decision led to a rocky college debut, Juzang barely playing before a few promising performances late in the season. Then came the pandemic that forced Juzang to reconsider what he wanted out of his college experience.
Transferring to UCLA seemed like the most attractive option given that it was near his home and the personal trainers that he could access during a time of heavy uncertainty. Juzang also liked the idea of Cronin transforming him into the kind of player who could tick off those goals on the bedroom closet.
“I wanted to be part of a winning program and be held to winning standards,” Juzang said, “and I felt he was the guy to do that.”
The NCAA granted a petition for immediate eligibility that his father said was based on pandemic hardship, allowing Juzang to move into the starting lineup almost as soon as he recovered from a stress reaction in his right foot that forced him to miss the first four games.
Cronin gave Juzang the nudge he was looking for, helping him evolve into a scorer, and not just a shooter, by enhancing his ability to draw fouls and get to the free-throw line instead of settling for jump shots.
It has led to a reminder that sometimes it’s best to write your own story, the details never as important as the ending.
“I wasn’t thinking about the scoring at all, it just kind of happened,” Juzang said of his tournament bonanza, “but I definitely did visualize a run.”
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