His team was in the midst of a fast-break drill, sneakers squeaking and ball flying, when Mick Cronin spotted something he didn’t like.
“Hold up!” the UCLA basketball coach bellowed early in practice Thursday, bringing Tyger Campbell, Jake Kyman and Alex Olesinski to a standstill. “We’re cheatin.’ Lazy. Get your … in there. Jake, the outlet’s over here. Coach [Darren Savino] has got the rebound, you’re here, you throw it, Tyger’s open. Let’s go!”
And with that, the sneakers squeaked and the ball flew once more, the Bruins trying to get everything just right.
No detail seemed to escape Cronin in his efforts to repair a broken foundation. UCLA is coming off a season in which it finished just one game over .500 and missed the NCAA tournament for the second time in four seasons while displaying lax effort and almost no defense.
The media picked the Bruins to finish eighth in the Pac-12 Conference, sparking some deep self-reflection among a group of mostly teenagers.
“The past two years,” junior forward Chris Smith said, “I feel like I’ve underachieved as a person here and as a player here and as a team we have too, so it’s things that they should be saying. I mean, people shouldn’t expect us to be doing super well when we’ve shown that we have a lot of things to work on, so those are realistic expectations.”
Cronin sent a message when he replaced massive photos of current players that hung over the baskets inside the Mo Ostin Center with pyramid-shaped images of every UCLA player selected in the first round of the NBA draft.
“I had a fundamental issue with walking in this building and not seeing those guys on the wall,” said Cronin, who recently had one of those picks, Don MacLean, speak to his players. “It’s just personal.”
Known as one of UCLA’s more lackadaisical players in previous years, Smith pleased coaches earlier in the week when he led the team in deflections, a stat the coaches track more closely than their own stock portfolios.
“We don’t really negotiate effort,” Cronin said.
Smith seemed on his way to a master’s degree in the Mick Cronin School of Accountability, admitting that he needed another year of college after a sophomore season in which he faded badly during conference play.
“I looked in the mirror and knew I wasn’t ready,” Smith said, ticking off a list of needed improvements that included shot selection, decision-making and leadership.
Smith could already qualify as a spokesperson for Cronin with less than a month to go before UCLA’s season opener against Long Beach State on Nov. 6 at Pauley Pavilion.
“We expect ourselves to go out there and just put it all out on the floor every single night,” Smith said. “If we lose it’s going to be because somebody was just going crazy hard and we couldn’t make a single shot, so I’d say you should expect us to go out 100%, whatever five is out there.”
Can you dig it?
UCLA players might have checked last week to make sure one practice visitor wasn’t toting a handheld camcorder, lest they end up on one of basketball’s most famous blooper reels.
It was Shaquille O’Neal, Lakers legend, father of Bruins redshirt freshman forward Shareef O’Neal and host of TNT’s “Shaqtin’ a Fool,” the lowlight segment that pokes fun at NBA players’ more regrettable moments. Some UCLA players are probably glad there’s not a college edition.
“You don’t make a fool out of yourself in front of Shaq because he’ll talk trash about you,” Olesinski said. “I mean, not in a mean way, in a playful way, but still.”
Guard Prince Ali said part of that playfulness involved assessing the form on players’ jumpers.
“He likes to tell everybody their jump shot’s broke,” Ali said, “so he’ll scream, ‘Broke’ all day.’ ”
Of course, it might be hard to keep perfect form while practicing in front of an NBA Hall of Famer.
“I try not to make a big deal of it,” Olesinski said, “but it’s Shaq.”
Ali and sophomore guard Jules Bernard have been playing point guard alongside Campbell with sophomore David Singleton not fully cleared from a broken foot. “I think it’s helped their game,” Cronin said of Ali and Bernard. ... Cronin said his team would hold an intrasquad scrimmage Friday, with a closed scrimmage against an undisclosed Division I opponent coming soon. “I’ve got to let these guys go up and down,” Cronin said. “I get sick of teaching the drills, they get sick of doing the drills.”