The Mick Cronin Rules are often learned in heated moments, at high volume.
Rule No. 1: No uncontested layups.
“If you want to see him go off,” UCLA senior guard Prince Ali said of his new coach, “let somebody lay the ball up and see what happens.”
Rule No. 2: Take a play off at your own peril.
“They’re not going to let it slide,” senior forward Alex Olesinski said of the coaching staff.
Rule No. 3: All five defenders keep their chests pointed toward the ballhandler.
“If a guy gets beat, you know, we all get beat,” freshman guard Jaime Jaquez said.
The Bruins have absorbed what might feel like a season’s worth of concepts during informal workouts in the five months since Cronin signed a six-year, $24.5-million contract. Plenty more will be in store when practice starts on Sept. 27, six weeks before the season opener on Nov. 6 against Long Beach State at Pauley Pavilion.
Cronin’s gritty approach has given his players a sense for how he might elevate a talent-laden roster that underachieved under predecessor Steve Alford, leading to Alford’s dismissal before the start of Pac-12 Conference play last season.
“They make sure that you always go hard and I think it’s really good for this group of guys,” Olesinski said of Cronin and his assistants. “Like, we need that. We need someone to push us all the time.”
Defensive effort seemed optional under Alford, but will be required for players to see the court under Cronin. Long before Cronin left Cincinnati for UCLA, Ali had memorized the scouting report on his teams, having read it so many times. It had been presented to Ali once in each of the previous three seasons before the Bruins faced the Bearcats.
The main points centered on the defense and were always the same.
Tough. Hard to score against. Almost impenetrable around the rim.
“You’re not going in there by yourself thinking you’re going to score,” Ali said recently. “You drive to pass.”
None of that prepared Ali for the man who materialized before the Bruins. Ali found Cronin to be warm and welcoming, the opposite of his defenses.
“He’s a lot more mellow off the court than I expected,” Ali said, “and he’s a pretty funny dude. He’s more personable than I thought he was.”
Once Cronin gathered his players on the court, however, Ali found that the old scouting report still applied. Pity the poor Bruin who gave up an easy layup, refused to dive for a loose ball or nonchalantly grabbed a one-handed rebound.
“If you miss a shot, he’s not going to care, if it was a good shot,” Ali said. “It’s the little things that tick him off.”
Cronin doesn’t just expect his players to grasp every nuance without being a stickler himself. That’s why he’ll walk them through plays that went wrong, moment by moment, until they understand their mistakes.
“He’ll go back through the play and he’ll be like, ‘Where were you when this happened?’” Olesinski said. “‘All right, so what should have you done?’ He’ll kind of teach you through it. It’s very helpful.”
Ali and Olesinski feel particularly invested in improving because this will be their final college season, one they could have spent elsewhere as graduate transfers. Both decided to stick it out because Cronin made them feel wanted and they longed to leave UCLA with something besides last season’s 17-16 record as their legacy.
“You don’t want to go out like that,” Ali said. “You want to go out winning some games.”
With a roster that loses its top three scorers but returns the bulk of its hardest workers, not to mention newcomers Jaquez and Jake Kyman, the Bruins say they can be immediate contenders in the Pac-12 under Cronin.
“I think we’re going to be really good this year, if we’re being completely honest,” Ali said. “I think we have the makeup.”
Ali said the plantar fasciitis that forced him to miss the final seven games of last season has healed. Forward Shareef O’Neal has recovered from heart surgery and point guard Tyger Campbell is rounding into form after surgery for the torn knee ligament that forced him to miss all of last season.
Everyone is on equal footing when it comes to learning the preferences of their new coach. Cronin values scouting personnel over scheme. His defensive concepts include keeping track of the ballhandler at all times and collectively providing constant help.
“It’s just team defense instead of individual defense,” Jaquez said. “Always help and [when somebody gets beat] it’s not your fault, it’s our fault.”
Togetherness is a theme that dominates all of Cronin’s teachings, making the Bruins feel like they’re on the verge of a singular journey.
“He’s about the team — win together, lose together, move the ball, everyone works together, everyone wins,” Jaquez said. “I like that a lot because playing as a team is how you win championships.”