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Mick Cronin’s defense strategy will be foundation of UCLA’s ‘team-first’ approach

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Mick Cronin guided the Cincinnati Bearcats to nine straight NCAA tournament appearances. Will he turn around the UCLA men’s basketball program?
(Getty Images)

Hep Cronin described his son’s defense as a matchup man. Defenders don’t always follow the player they’re guarding, sometimes passing him off to another teammate with a verbal warning.

“They’ll yell at each other, ‘Left corner! Left corner!’ ” Cronin said last spring after his son, Mick, had accepted the UCLA men’s basketball coaching job, completing a rise from gritty undersized guard on Hep’s high school team to coach of one of the most storied college programs.

“And it messes them up. You can see the offense almost back the ball out and they’ll go, ‘What the hell are they in?’ They’ll look over at their coach and go, ‘What should we do?’ ”

Nobody seemed to know while facing Mick’s teams at Cincinnati. In each of the last nine seasons, Cronin’s teams never ranked worse than No. 28 nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, according to the metrics of Ken Pomeroy. The Bearcats finished in the top 17 seven times during that stretch, including No. 2 during the 2017-18 season.

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A related development: Cincinnati won at least 20 games and advanced to the NCAA tournament in each of those nine seasons.

As Cronin prepared to make his UCLA debut Wednesday night against Long Beach State at Pauley Pavilion, it seemed apparent that the Bruins will also go as far as their defense takes them.

This is a deep but star- and veteran-deprived roster featuring 10 freshmen and sophomores. UCLA lost its top three scorers from the team that finished 17-16 last season under coach Steve Alford and interim successor Murry Bartow. That team also ranked No. 137 nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, meaning that Cronin must find stoppers as well as scorers.

Point guard Tyger Campbell made his debut at Pauley Pavilion for UCLA basketball, leading the Bruins in an exhibition tune-up a week before the season opener.

Candidates to carry the scoring load include redshirt senior guard Prince Ali, the team’s top returning scorer from last season (9.6 points per game), promising sophomore guard Jules Bernard (7.6 ppg) and talented but erratic junior guard Chris Smith (6.3).

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Redshirt freshman Tyger Campbell showed during the team’s exhibition victory over Stanislaus State that he’s capable of orchestrating the offense as a pass-first point guard who’s involved in almost every highlight play.

Where will the defense come from? Everywhere. Effort on that front figures to be universal, lest someone wants to find himself headed to the bench.

“You’ve got to play the guys that will play the way you want them to play,” Cronin said. “The other guys will learn they’re not going to play if they don’t play Bruin basketball, which for us is team first and there’s a lot of individual glory in making your team win.”

Asked to describe his defense in five words or fewer, Cronin said: “Not easily scored upon.”

UCLA guard Tyger Campbell, right, tries to drive past Stanislaus State’s Ty Davis.
UCLA guard Tyger Campbell, right, tries to drive past Stanislaus State’s Ty Davis during a preseason game at Pauley Pavilion on Oct. 30.
(Getty Images)

His scheme tries to take away an opponent’s strength — be it three-point shooting, transition game or interior scoring — while tempting its least-efficient players to shoot. The Bruins will do this by staying within bad-breath distance of top shooters while sagging off others.

All five defenders keep their chests pointed toward the ballhandler to keep tabs on where a play might be headed. Help defense and switching on pick-and-rolls is constant. So is communication.

“The biggest thing on the defense is talking,” redshirt senior forward Alex Olesinski said. “As long as you talk, there’s no mistakes.”

The length and athleticism on a team that includes six players 6 feet 9 or taller is ideal for a Cronin defense because it allows the bigs to switch onto smaller guards without any drop-off in efficiency.

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“Coach always says, ‘The mismatch doesn’t hurt us, the open guy does,’ ” Olesinski said. “If there’s a mismatch, we can always help, we can always double. But if there’s an open guy, everyone can make shots, it’s college basketball.”

Cronin’s favorite measure of his defense is its number of deflections, which include tipped passes, blocked shots and recovered loose balls. If UCLA can reach 40 in a game it will make its coach happy because he noted that teams reaching that threshold have a 95% chance of winning.

Picked by the media to finish eighth in the Pac-12 Conference, the Bruins may not raise another banner on the 25th anniversary of their last national championship. But they probably also won’t lose to many undermanned teams. Cronin had a reputation for winning the games he was supposed to at Cincinnati, meaning that UCLA fans likely won’t have to worry about any more home fiascoes against Liberty and Belmont.

An early indication of just how good UCLA might be could come this month at the Maui Invitational, where the Bruins could face No. 3 Kansas and No. 1 Michigan State, provided they don’t lose to Brigham Young in their opening game of that tournament.

Either way, the Bruins figure to say aloha to the porous defense they have played in recent seasons.

“He can’t go from 300th in defense to five,” Hep Cronin said of his son, “but I guarantee you they’ll go to the top 50. Either that, or he’s going to kill somebody.”

WEDNESDAY

VS. LONG BEACH STATE

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When: 8 p.m.

Where: Pauley Pavilion.

On the air: TV: Pac-12 Networks; Radio: 1150.

Update: UCLA’s opener could be as easy as a day at the Beach. That’s a pun Long Beach State might have to repeatedly hear after changing its nickname in all sports besides baseball to the Beach while adopting a shark as its mascot. The Beach is also undergoing a roster makeover, with only two starters and 20.2% of its scoring returning from last season. The Bruins defeated the Beach 91-80 last November at Pauley Pavilion in their second game of the season and have won 16 of 17 games in the series between the teams.


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