The whistle blew and Prince Ali acted like he knew what was coming next.
After slapping hands together in frustration over his needless foul underneath UCLA’s basket midway through the second half Sunday, the senior guard glanced at the bench and drifted toward the sideline as the buzzer signaled a player substitution.
Chris Smith was in, Ali was out.
It’s become a familiar routine over the Bruins’ first 10 games under coach Mick Cronin, who has pulled players after mistakes to use the bench as an ally while treating some early season games against overmatched opponents like practice situations.
“You want to teach; you never want to take guys’ confidence,” Cronin said Wednesday of his approach. “But there is a time where you do have to make a point.”
The point with Ali was that you can’t foul somebody near the baseline after missing a layup. It’s the sort of play, Cronin said, that could turn a victory into defeat.
“We are not talented enough to overcome mistakes, whatever you want to call them — bonehead plays, you pick your adjective, fouling 86 feet from the basket, whatever you want to call them,” Cronin said. “It already cost us one game.”
Cronin was referring to forward Cody Riley’s technical foul in the second half against Hofstra last month that sparked the Pride’s comeback during an eventual 10-point victory over the Bruins. Cronin said Riley realized the magnitude of his mistake.
“He was in my office the next day almost crying; he’s searching me out to apologize,” Cronin said. “He didn’t sleep. But we got to grow up. [The players] care, so it’s my job to teach them.”
Cronin’s quick hooks have become so routine that some players have immediately walked toward the bench after throwing a bad pass or committing a traveling violation without even looking to make sure somebody else was entering the game.
Smith said getting repeatedly pulled from games didn’t shake his confidence.
“We all want to get better,” Smith said. “If you come out of a game, you come out for a reason. Either you did something wrong and they coach you up on the sideline or just matchups, somebody could get in there that’s got a better matchup than you, so you get snatched, you come to the bench to learn.”
Players who have been yanked often sit in what could be described as the teaching chair among assistant coaches Darren Savino, Michael Lewis and Rod Palmer.
“They just tell you what you probably should have done, ask what you were thinking and just go from there,” Ali said of the assistants. “It’s a learning experience.”
Cronin arrived at UCLA with a reputation as a player’s coach despite his demanding ways and said he tried to ensure that his new players realize he will always prioritize their value as people over whatever they accomplish on the court.
Sometimes he removes players when they would surely prefer to play on.
“There are other times,” Cronin said, “where you can’t take a guy out because you don’t have anybody to put in.”
UCLA’s poor shot selection is among the reasons the Bruins have made only 30.9% of their three-pointers, Cronin said. The coach has worked with Ali, who has made 21.1% of his shots from beyond the arc, on squaring up his body toward the basket. “Sometimes when I shoot,” Ali said, “I twist a little bit and that affects my percentage.” … Sophomore guard David Singleton has recovered from the foot injury that sidelined him against Denver on Sunday and should be able to play against Notre Dame on Saturday, Cronin said. … Cronin said the Bruins are working on a possible summer trip to Vancouver to play Canadian college teams under NCAA rules that allow teams to travel abroad in the off-season every four years. UCLA’s last summer foreign trip was to Australia in 2016.