Lewis discusses Elite Eight appearanceMarch 29, 2021
By COREY STOLZENBACH
Michael Lewis knows UCLA’s success in the NCAA Tournament is not about him, but nevertheless, this means a lot to him.
The 1996 Jasper graduate is in his second year as the assistant coach of the Bruins, who are making their first Elite Eight appearance since 2008. Not only can Lewis say that he’s coaching during March Madness, he’s doing so in his home state, as Indiana’s hosting the entire tournament.
This was where he made a name for himself, scoring 2,138 points in high school — the most in the history of Jasper basketball and Dubois County. He then proceeded to play at Indiana University under Bob Knight, posting a then-record 545 career assists.
“It’s just special for me personally just because of being here in Indiana, and Indianapolis — a place that I’m very familiar with,” Lewis said. “It was really cool to compete in Mackey Arena and Hinkle Fieldhouse and Bankers Life (Fieldhouse), and now we get a chance to go to Lucas Oil (Stadium).”
This year makes it 25 years since Lewis graduated from Jasper and rewrote the record books on his way to becoming an Indiana All-Star. He knows how supportive Jasper is of its athletics, and said it was “amazing” to be able to play in front of that support as a high school basketball player.
Jasper taught Lewis stuff that he still carries with him to this day.
“I think the one thing that Jasper prides itself in is hard work, and so, that’s something that I’ve always kind of carried with me,” he said. “You get out of situations what you put into it, and you never really ask for handouts. You do your job — and what comes your way, comes your way. And you take the hand that you’re dealt, and you make the best of it.”
UCLA is three wins away from its 12th national championship in program history, and it’ll be playing Tuesday's game against top-seeded Michigan as a No. 11 seed. This tournament has definitely seen some upsets, as No. 12 seed Oregon State is also in the Elite Eight this year.
Meanwhile, 15th seeded Oral Roberts University missed a 3-pointer at the buzzer on Saturday in a 72-70 loss to University of Arkansas. Otherwise, the Golden Eagles would also be in this position.
“With each season, there’s a great parity in men’s basketball, and when you get into a tournament, and you get into one game scenarios, anything can happen,” Lewis said. “I don’t truly believe that we should’ve been an 11 seed playing Michigan State in the play-in game. I don’t think either team deserved to be in that game, but that’s where we were, and so, you make the most out of it.”
Lewis noted that the Pac-12 Conference wasn’t highly thought of going into the tournament, but he knew the Bruins were playing good basketball against good competition before March Madness started.
One thing he takes pride in with his players is the growth they have made. Last year’s tournament was shut down before it ever began, and Lewis and his fellow coaches couldn’t meet with their players in person for six months. The coaches saw their players’ health and safety, and not the game, as their top priority.
“We weren’t really too concerned with basketball,” he said. “We knew basketball was going to take a back seat to a global pandemic. So, really, we were just focused on those guys just being safe and healthy and staying on top of their academics. We always knew that if we got to play basketball again, we would worry about that as the time came.”
UCLA is getting this opportunity against Michigan after outlasting second seeded Alabama, 88-78, Sunday in overtime at Hinkle Fieldhouse.
Alex Reese of the Crimson Tide pushed the game to OT after draining a three at the buzzer to tie it, 65-65.
However, Lewis touted the Bruins for being a resilient group, and thought that was evident Sunday night. He noted they didn’t flinch or drop their heads, and lauded them for how good they were in overtime.
“We stayed true to the defensive end of the floor, and we’ve talked through this whole tournament and even heading into this tournament that if we were going to have an opportunity to advance, we were going to have to do it on the defensive end,” Lewis said. “We’ve won four games now, and outside the first half of our first game against Michigan State, we’ve played really solid defense that’s put us in a position to win.”
Lewis likes how UCLA is a cohesive coaching staff with not a lot of ego. He appreciates that head coach Mick Cronin empowers his assistants, and they’re trying to pour everything they can into their players — to get the most out of them each day. Lewis does some scouting for the team, and primarily works with the team’s guards.
He praised his players for being a lot of fun to coach all year, especially these past two weeks.
A trip to Saturday’s Final Four is on the line with this game against the Wolverines at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Lewis knows what kind of competition the Bruins will see, but he doesn’t believe UCLA is an underdog, because its history speaks for itself.
“Like I said earlier, defense has got us here, and defense is what will help us advance if we’re able to do that,” he said. “Obviously, Michigan’s an unbelievable team, they’ve had a great year. They’re extremely well-coached...We’re going to have to play as well as we can possibly play to put ourselves in a position, but for us to be successful, it will all start on the defensive end.”
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