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Texas Christian’s Jamie Dixon, Cincinnati’s Mick Cronin top candidates for UCLA job

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Texas Christian head coach Jamie Dixon, left, and Cincinnati head coach Mick Cronin are the top targets for UCLA’s head coaching vacancy.
(Richard W. Rodriguez / TNS; Gary Landers / Associated Press)

UCLA officials have narrowed their focus on Texas Christian’s Jamie Dixon and Cincinnati’s Mick Cronin in the search to fill their basketball coaching vacancy after striking out with a slew of top targets, the Los Angeles Times has learned.

Dixon and Cronin emerged as leading candidates after a bevy of more coveted coaches expressed no interest, were eliminated through the school’s vetting process or declined to be interviewed until after the Final Four.

UCLA hopes to have a coach in place within the next week as the field of candidates continues to dwindle, a person with knowledge of the situation said.

Athletic department officials recently met with Cronin as part of the school’s lengthy search for a permanent replacement for coach Steve Alford, who was dismissed in late December after five-plus seasons.

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The Bruins are also considering St. Mary’s coach Randy Bennett, Texas coach Shaka Smart and former Phoenix Suns coach and UCLA alumnus Earl Watson as fallback options, according to multiple people with knowledge of the situation.

Dixon, 53, recently hired UCLA associate head coach Duane Broussard as an assistant on his staff but said in January that he was staying at his alma mater when asked about the Bruins’ opening. He seemed a bit more ambiguous about the possibility when asked about it Monday. “I don’t talk about rumors, speculation ... no part of it,” Dixon told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. “I don’t think it’s good for anyone involved. I stay consistent in that regard.”

Dixon, a native of North Hollywood who apprenticed for several years as an assistant under former UCLA coach Ben Howland during previous stops at Pittsburgh and Northern Arizona, has compiled a 395-163 record in 16 seasons at Pittsburgh and Texas Christian. Dixon’s Horned Frogs play Smart’s Longhorns on Tuesday in a National Invitation Tournament semifinal at Madison Square Garden.

Cronin, 47, recently completed his 13th season at Cincinnati, where he’s compiled a 296-146 record while taking the Bearcats to the NCAA tournament in each of the last nine years. Cincinnati advanced to a regional semifinal in 2012 but has not made it past the second round in any other season under Cronin; Iowa eliminated the Bearcats in the first round this season.

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Cronin could also be a candidate for the Virginia Tech vacancy created by Buzz Williams’ expected departure for Texas A&M. Virginia Tech athletic director Whit Babcock was Cronin’s boss for 2½ years when Babcock held the same post at Cincinnati.

Cronin makes $2.2 million per season at Cincinnati, according to USA Today’s salary database, putting him in line for a considerable raise were he to come to UCLA. Cincinnati was reportedly in ongoing discussions with Cronin to give him a contract extension.

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Money was not a hindrance in the Bruins’ apparent failure to land a top target after starting with a list of more than 50 candidates, including some of the biggest names in the NBA and college basketball.

Among the A-list candidates, only Kentucky’s John Calipari granted UCLA a meeting, according to a person with knowledge of the situation. The Bruins offered Calipari a six-year, $45-million contract in addition to a lucrative package for assistants and staff members.

But Calipari declined the offer, deciding he could not leave the school where he won a national championship in 2012 and has advanced to three other Final Fours. He agreed to what was described as a lifetime contract on Monday to stay at Kentucky, where his $9.2-million annual salary already makes him the highest-paid coach in college basketball.

Several other prospective UCLA candidates were eliminated through the school’s vetting process for various reasons, including past NCAA violations and personal indiscretions. Thad Matta, the former Ohio State coach, was removed from consideration because of concerns over lingering health issues.

UCLA’s backup plans all feature some luster … and a few blemishes.

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Bennett, 56, has built a consistent winner at St. Mary’s thanks in large part to a pipeline of international players, going 414-174 over 18 seasons while making seven appearances in the NCAA tournament. But his reliance on foreign players has come with a price; the NCAA placed the school on four years’ probation and suspended Bennett for five games in 2013 for failing to promote an atmosphere of compliance after rules violations committed by an assistant coach involved in international recruiting.

Watson, the former Bruins standout point guard, coached in the NBA for parts of three seasons with the Phoenix Suns but was fired three games into the 2017-18 season after absorbing 48- and 42-point losses. Watson, 39, is completing his UCLA degree requirements this quarter, which would be a prerequisite to hold the job.

Smart, 41, was among the Bruins’ top choices when they hired Alford in 2013 but spurned their overtures to remain at Virginia Commonwealth, where he made a surprise run to the Final Four in 2011. He departed for Texas in 2015 but has underwhelmed with the Longhorns, generating a 69-66 record in four seasons. Texas has made only two appearances in the NCAA tournament under Smart, losing in the first round both times.

ben.bolch@latimes.com

Follow Ben Bolch on Twitter @latbbolch


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