Mick Cronin’s impromptu stand-up routine broke out in a sun-drenched rooftop foyer Tuesday afternoon, the new UCLA men’s basketball coach unleashing a torrent of retorts for the media’s historically low expectations for his team.
Hey, coach, what about the Bruins being picked to finish eighth in the Pac-12 Conference for the first time in the 35-year history of the preseason media poll?
“Yeah, I’m more concerned with the traffic on the 405,” Cronin said during a break in his obligations during Pac-12 media day at conference headquarters.
Hey, coach, what about the Bruins not having a player on the inaugural preseason all-conference teams?
“Yeah, I’m more concerned that they’re still doing construction on Sunset Boulevard,” he said.
Hey, coach, what about your players dealing with these sorts of projections?
“I always tell my guys, ‘You can’t tweet your way to the NBA and you can’t bring your Rivals ranking with you to college,’ ” he said. “So none of that stuff matters.”
It was the first time UCLA was picked to finish lower than sixth place, which was the media’s projection for the Bruins when Ben Howland replaced Steve Lavin before the 2003-04 season. UCLA finished tied with Oregon for fourth in the conference that season and would make the first of three consecutive Final Four appearances only two years later.
The Bruins would certainly take that kind of turnaround under Cronin. They have not been in the NCAA tournament in two of the last four seasons and finished only one game above .500 last season after Murry Bartow replaced Steve Alford on an interim basis before the start of Pac-12 play.
“Our results weren’t what they needed to be,” Cronin said, “or I wouldn’t be here.”
If the media projections are correct, the Bruins have a lot of leapfrogging to do. Oregon was picked to win the conference, followed by Colorado, defending champion Washington, Arizona and USC, all of whom received at least one first-place vote.
Next came Arizona State in sixth place, followed by Oregon State, UCLA, Utah, Stanford, Washington State and California. The Times does not vote in the poll per its policy.
Cronin has inherited a deep but largely anonymous roster. Redshirt seniors Prince Ali and Alex Olesinski, the players UCLA trotted out Tuesday in front of a small gathering of reporters, illustrate the challenge facing Cronin in his rebuilding efforts. Olesinski has been a role player and Ali has struggled with consistency since suffering a knee injury nearly 3½ years ago.
They’re representative of a team that lost its three leading scorers from last season and does not have anyone back who averaged more than Ali’s 9.6 points per game.
“We don’t have a standout guy who’s going to take every shot,” Cronin said, “so we’re hopefully a five-guys-in-double-figures type of team.”
Cronin said sophomore guard David Singleton has not been fully cleared from the broken foot he suffered during the Pac-12 tournament, though the hope is he’ll be ready before the Bruins’ season opener against Long Beach State on Nov. 6 at Pauley Pavilion. Redshirt freshman point guard Tyger Campbell (knee) and forward Shareef O’Neal (heart surgery) are expected to make their college debuts against the 49ers after being sidelined last season.
Cronin said he’s still learning his team and it could take until January to determine the best rotations, though his players have already developed a strong sense for what’s expected of them in practices.
“They are very intense, but we get a lot done,” Olesinski said. “A lot of teaching, a lot of learning and a lot of attention to detail, and you better go hard or it’s not going to go well for you.”
Former UCLA forward Sean Farnham, an ESPN college basketball analyst, said the Bruins’ lowered expectations could benefit Cronin as he attempts to restore the program to national prominence.
“It allows him to further put his thumbprint down on this team,” Farnham said, “and adapt to his style of play and what he requires and how hard he expects them to compete.”
Cronin has already won over Bruins legend Bill Walton, who attended a recent alumni barbecue that Cronin hosted in his Encino backyard.
“I couldn’t be happier, I couldn’t be more proud of the job that he’s doing, of who he is, the attempts that he’s making and we’re ecstatic about a new and fresh start,” Walton said. “In a very short period of time, I’ve become a fan.”
Farnham said he would be “rather shocked” if UCLA didn’t exceed its preseason projection based on the tenaciousness he has seen during practices.
“I think this is a team that people are going to be really surprised with how hard they play, and that is a direct reflection of the leadership,” Farnham said. “Look, UCLA was in need of a culture change, UCLA was in need of somebody who was going to come in and roll up their sleeves and not care about making friends with everybody but cared about results.”
Ultimately, Cronin said those results would be a reflection of effort, not estimates.
“I would tell our fans to ignore that stuff and come help us,” Cronin said of the predictions. “We’re going to be exciting, we’re going to give unbelievable effort and we’ll be fun to watch.”