The star of the game was the kid with the mop.
The UCLA basketball team spent so much time on the floor in Mick Cronin’s rough-and-tumble coaching debut Wednesday night, the hardwood frequently became a swampland.
Drew Arguelles, junior student manager, soaked it all in.
“Even I’m sweating,’’ said Arguelles, who continually ran on the court with a giant mop to wipe up wet spots. “We’re putting a big emphasis on defense, and everyone is diving on every loose ball known to man. I’m out there almost as much as the players.”
In a 69-65 victory over Long Beach State at Pauley Pavilion, UCLA hit the ground running, and writhing, and scrambling in collisions so intense you could hear the bodily thuds from high in the press box.
The offense was mostly awful, but the hustle was inspiring, the effort was intense, and the players wearily trudged off as if they had finished two hours of glorious mud wrestling.
“If you can be in a dogfight and win, you get a little more out of it,” said the new coach with a shrug.
Welcome to the world of the Cincy-hardened Cronin, a guy who coaches like his players play, with shoulders thrown back and jaw tight and expression stiff. In fact, even after his team had busted a 58-all tie with 2:14 remaining and muscled to a victory, Cronin didn’t even applaud. Forget the eight clap, he didn’t even one clap.
Cronin stoically led his team through the layup line, and then walked solemnly away as if he had to be reminded of something pretty important.
Coach, just like John Wooden, you won your first game at UCLA!
“You know what? One time in my career I want to win my last game,” he said, finally managing a little grin. “That’s your quote. I came here to win my last game one year.”
This wasn’t all lovely, but this is why he was hired, to instill a chip-on-the-clavicle toughness to a Bruin program that had fallen into backbone disrepair.
He promises that a clearly confused offense — which struggled to create space and find shots while committing 14 turnovers — will eventually hum with experience. But he makes it clear that everything around Westwood will begin with defense and ferocity, something that resulted Wednesday in 11 steals, six blocked shots, and a 14-8 edge in offensive rebounds.
“Right now my focus with these guys is hustle, toughness, togetherness,” Cronin said. “That was the reason we won tonight. It sure wasn’t being pretty.”
In the end, it was pretty enough for many of the fans, who filled less than half of the arena in a remnant of the Steve Alford era. Yet, with a surprisingly populated student section, the building roared down the stretch, so much that Cronin didn’t even notice the empty seats.
“I thought the crowd was great, there was people here, they were cheering, I was thrilled,” he said. “Hopefully they appreciate our guys’ hustle.”
They do, they do.
“I like it so far,” said Steve Cron, longtime season ticket holder. “I hope playing hard and playing defense is the future of UCLA basketball.”
It was also pretty enough for the players, particularly Chris Smith, who exhaustedly put his head in his hands during the postgame interview but who perked up when asked about the effort.
“The last thing Coach said before we went out before tipoff was, ‘Be the first team on the floor,’” said Smith, who had 13 points and a team-leading eight rebounds. “That just goes a long way. Playing defense is something we can always control. Playing harder than the other team is something we can always control. We try to do that every night.”
What they struggled to control is the basketball in pressure moments. Who takes the big shots? Who makes the big plays? Who is supposed to be the star? The Bruins offense operated with a consistent hesitation that resulted in barely 40% percent shooting and just 26% success from the three-point line.
Cronin said this lack of clear offensive leadership is understandable on a team with 10 freshmen and sophomores missing their three most prolific shooters from last season. In this game, they were led by this cool little spunky redshirt freshman point guard named Tyger Campbell — he had 15 points, five rebounds and five assists — but that could change. One night it could be Cody Riley inside. The next night it could be Smith from the perimeter.
“It takes time for some of these young guys to get comfortable in their new roles,” Cronin said, whose team had four players in double figures. “We could have games with seven guys in double figures. We’ve got a lot of effective offensive players … they just need to adjust to their new situations.”
In the meantime, how about those deflections? On the first night that UCLA celebrated Cronin’s favorite statistics, the Bruins had 32 deflections, eight short of his magic number of 40, but more than enough.
“You get 40 in a college game, you win 95% of the time,” he said.
What Cronin didn’t deflect was the notion that this team, picked by the media to finish eighth in the Pac-12 conference, had plenty of work ahead. They’re going to struggle to find their footing. They’re going to have to search hard to find their scoring. They’re not massively gifted like some of Steve Alford‘s or Ben Howland’s teams.
“We’re not a finished product,” Cronin said. “If we were, I wouldn’t be here.”
But, if Wednesday is any indication, they will get better, because they will fight harder. They had 10 turnovers in the first half, and just four in the second half. They were outscored by six in the first half, then outscored the Beach — nifty new nickname! — by 10 in the second half.
They improved even as the game progressed, so it will be interesting to see what Cronin can do with them over an entire season.
So, yes, on the first night of the Mick Cronin era, the UCLA Bruins were a work in progress.
But, man, they worked. And, goodness, that’s progress.