Two hours before his young team would tip off, Mick Cronin continued to cultivate a much larger group.
The UCLA basketball coach appeared at an outdoor pep rally on the Westwood campus for the football team Thursday night as part of its rivalry week festivities, informing the large gathering that his team also had a game to play.
“We’re 4-0 and it might be a little chilly right now,” Cronin said before the Bruins lost to Hofstra, “but the first 600 students get a beach towel tonight.”
The student turnout was strong for the Bruins’ game inside Pauley Pavilion, the latest payoff for Cronin’s efforts to build buzz around his program. He’s had former UCLA players Ryan Hollins and Don MacLean, both of whom played in the NBA, address his team. He’s staged a preseason showcase for fans, enjoyed lunch with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, enticed students with free pizza and held a barbecue at his home for the school’s basketball alumni.
“He had lots of appetizers, lots of water, a beautiful, warm home and an inviting atmosphere and then he had all kinds of really good food — chicken, ribs, potatoes, vegetables, salad, corn,” legendary Bruins center Bill Walton said as only he can. “Did I say potatoes too? And all the things I like, which summarizes my experience with Mick Cronin. I’ve been most impressed.”
Cronin said bringing alumni back into the fold was a big part of restoring luster to UCLA basketball, which has not been to a Final Four since 2008 or won a national championship in almost a quarter of a century.
“The strength of any program — and people say UCLA is a blueblood — it’s because you have an immense fan base and that’s because of all the winning, and that’s because of your fan base and your former players,” Cronin said. “It’s a tremendous pool of alumni who played here at UCLA. The beauty of being at this place is, whether it’s Kevin Love in the weight room or Russell Westbrook working out in the gym with his name on the floor, there’s so many guys.”
Part of the challenge facing Cronin has been illustrated by the Bruins’ early home crowds. UCLA has averaged only 5,672 fans this season inside 13,800-seat Pauley Pavilion, though attendance is among the least of Cronin’s worries.
The Bruins (4-1) are seeking steady shooters, reliable scorers, crunch-time leaders, stout defenders and heady decision-makers, among other things, heading into their opening-round game against Brigham Young (3-2) on Monday night at the Lahaina Civic Center in the opening round of the Maui Invitational.
Almost lost in UCLA’s 88-78 setback against Hofstra was the college debut of freshman guard Jake Kyman, who made two three-pointers and showed he could fill some of the team’s shooting void. It was also announced before the game that sophomore forward Kenneth Nwuba would redshirt this season, allowing him to develop his skills before returning to make a bigger impact.
UCLA’s trip to Hawaii could reveal more than how the Bruins respond to their first loss under Cronin. Should the Bruins get past BYU, they would likely face third-ranked Kansas on Tuesday. That would give Cronin his first opportunity to notch the sort of signature victory he heard so much about from all the former UCLA greats who have reconnected with the program thanks to his outreach.
“Part of college basketball, what makes it special, is the tradition and the history, so why would you not want those guys around?” Cronin said. “It’s cool to meet them, too.”
Up next for UCLA on Monday:
VS. BRIGHAM YOUNG
When: 8:30 p.m. PST
Where: Lahaina Civic Center, Lahaina, Hawaii
On the air: TV: ESPN2; radio: 570
Update: BYU is making its first appearance in the Maui Invitational since 2014 — when two of its current players participated. Forward Dalton Nixon and guard Jake Toolson, the nephew of former Cougars and Boston Celtics star Danny Ainge, were members of that team before going on two-year Mormon missions. Toolson also spent two seasons at Utah Valley before returning to BYU. The Cougars are coming off a 72-68 loss to Boise State in overtime but have a five-point victory over Southern Utah, which UCLA defeated by 15.