Mick Cronin recently held a barbecue for a group of UCLA basketball alumni at his Encino home, finding himself both awed and frightened by the collection of talent.
“Once I realized there were over 50 national championship rings in my backyard,” Cronin cracked Tuesday at the Southern California basketball coaches tipoff luncheon at the Los Angeles Athletic Club, “I haven’t slept since.”
UCLA’s current roster could give its new coach a different sort of nightmare.
“We don’t have a standout player,” Cronin said before the roughly two-hour luncheon, “so I think depth, for us to have a really good year, aside from learning how to practice, learning how to treat each other and compete, we’re going to have to probably use depth as our weapon.”
The Bruins lost their top three scorers off a team that finished 17-16 last season while missing the NCAA tournament for the second time in four years. They return 10 players but only 47.2% of their scoring, meaning that a new star must emerge.
Will it be Prince Ali, the injury-plagued redshirt senior whose career seemingly peaked with that driving dunk against Kentucky almost four years ago?
Or how about Jules Bernard, the hard-charging sophomore who traded in his drives to nowhere for consistent production toward the end of last season?
What about Chris Smith, the enigmatic junior whose talent seems outweighed only by his tendency to disappear?
Cronin would be in favor of step-up performances from all of the above.
“Although we may not have a standout right now,” Cronin said, “we have enough guys that I’m hoping we can get to a point where I think depth could be maybe our biggest strength.”
Cronin had spent just 52 hours with his players on the court in the offseason under NCAA rules before practice started last week. While most of the buzz upon his arrival centered on Cronin’s reputation as a defensive specialist, he said his team would strive to be well-rounded.
“You have to be really good at everything if you’re going to be a good team,” Cronin said. “The best way to score is to play together, to take care of the basketball and I think your defense starts with your offense. You take bad shots, don’t take care of the ball, it’s hard to defend — it’s really hard to defend. So I think it’s all intertwined.”
Cronin nearly has a full roster at his disposal as the Bruins approach their second week of practice. Redshirt freshman point guard Tyger Campbell has been fully cleared in his recovery from a torn knee ligament. Redshirt freshman forward Shareef O’Neal also has the green light after undergoing surgery to correct a heart defect.
Only sophomore guard David Singleton remains barred from contact drills, still rounding into form from the broken foot he suffered during the Pac-12 Conference tournament. But Cronin said Singleton was “progressing nicely,” with the hope that he will be ready to return by the season opener against Long Beach State on Nov. 6 at Pauley Pavilion.
Cronin was sassy in his remarks Tuesday before a gathering of coaches and university officials. He mentioned a photo of fellow former Murray State and current Cal State Northridge coach Mark Gottfried that hung inside Martha’s Restaurant in Murray, Ky., where patrons could get a $1.99 breakfast special.
He also teased San Diego State coach Brian Dutcher about being angry over Cronin’s hiring of Aztecs assistant Rod Palmer while noting that the San Diego State job was once the only one in Southern California that Cronin thought he could get.
Cronin now resides in a megawatt spotlight, though he noted how the wisdom of former UCLA coach John Wooden could help him navigate the outsized expectations that come with the territory.
“Here’s how smart Coach Wooden was,” Cronin said. “One time a long time ago, he said, ‘Ignore criticism, deflect praise and focus on your job.’ So he must have known that social media and the internet were coming.”
Wooden also believed in a short bench, which Cronin may not be able to utilize until he acquires considerably more star power or helps his current roster blossom into the next generation of champions.
For now, the Bruins’ strength may come from their numbers.
“The only way you’re going to develop guys is to play them,” Cronin said, “and I believe that tired players take bad shots, they foul and they get beat on defense and they don’t rebound, so if you can always make sure you’re always playing at a certain level you can make conditioning and depth a weapon.”