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UCLA Sports

UCLA has to learn hard lessons on the basketball court

UCLA guard Jules Bernard (3) loses the ball to Cal State Fullerton forward Jackson Rowe during a game Dec. 28 at Pauley Pavilion.
UCLA guard Jules Bernard, left, loses the ball to Cal State Fullerton forward Jackson Rowe during a game Saturday at Pauley Pavilion.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Mick Cronin has heard the chatter about what’s missing in his rebuilding efforts. Once the UCLA coach starts to fill the roster with his recruits, the sentiment goes, the Bruins can start to erase the confounding lack of fundamentals and dumb basketball plays that plague the team.

It’s all a bunch of hooey to Cronin.

“What frustrates me is when people say, ‘Well, it’s not your players,’ ” Cronin said Tuesday, three days after a home loss to Cal State Fullerton dropped the Bruins’ record to 7-6. “Yes they are. Yes they are. I’m the coach at UCLA, they’re here and they’re my players, so it’s my job to get them [where they need to be] and you can’t separate yourself from your team. I don’t believe in that, I don’t believe in that at all.

“Our coaching staff, we have to get them to do what we need them to do and that’s our job.”

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Cronin said he has spent the last few days trying to clarify his postgame message from Saturday, when some fans fretted that he was driving a wedge between himself and the players by saying they lacked humility, were reluctant to challenge each other and were overly focused on individual statistics.

On Tuesday, Cronin explained that restoring UCLA to national prominence was a collective effort and noted that his identity as a defense-minded coach wasn’t that of the players he inherited, leading to the painful process of breaking ingrained habits.

Oneyka Okongwu has quickly become a force for USC’s basketball program. But the freshman forward remains level-headed, always mindful of his brother who died in 2014.

“There’s got to be some hard lessons learned of what we stand for, what we’re going to stand for, that if you’re going to be here, humility is required, toughness is required, doing whatever it takes to stop the other team is required,” Cronin said, “so those are just standards you just have to set forth as a coach.”

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The Bruins have practiced every day and held a couple of team meetings since their loss to Fullerton, which could be considered their worst setback in two decades given that the Titans entered the game with a national ranking of No. 283 according to the metrics of basketball analyst Ken Pomeroy.

It was also UCLA’s third consecutive defeat, not exactly a spot the Bruins wanted to be in heading into their Pac-12 Conference opener Thursday at Washington (10-3). The losing streak has made some players realize they won’t win based solely on the name that graces their jerseys.

“Of course guys come in here, UCLA, you kinda get a big head, blah, blah, blah,” redshirt sophomore Jalen Hill said, “but losing a lot really humbles you. You just got to buckle down and work on your weaknesses.”

For Hill, that has meant being more vocal on the court while chasing every loose ball and rebound.

UCLA basketball coach Mick Cronin is bald, as are his three assistants. So while the coaches hope the team grows on the court, they know their heads will stay clean shaven.

“Be a superstar,” Hill said, “in my own role.”

Among the lessons that sophomore guard Jules Bernard said he has learned is trying to be more grateful for the opportunities that slipping on his jersey entails.

“People have paved the way for this program at UCLA basketball,” Bernard said, “and not being entitled as basketball players, taking every possession like it’s our last, respecting our opponents, respecting the game, just personally that’s just what I’ve been taught growing up, just to always respect the game and respect our opponents and play hard at all times because you never know when it can end.”

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Cronin knows that the ache his team feels can lead to better days, having experienced both emotions at his last college stop.

“Cincinnati,” Cronin said, “was raising the Titanic.”

The Bearcats had only four players when Cronin arrived and endured consecutive losing seasons before eventually making nine consecutive NCAA tournament appearances, something UCLA hasn’t achieved since making 14 consecutive trips under coaches Jim Harrick and Steve Lavin from 1989 to 2002.

“What we’re going through is brutal,” Cronin said, “but we have to go through it. It just has to happen.”

Etc.

Cronin said redshirt freshman forward Shareef O’Neal played only three minutes against Fullerton because of matchup issues involving the Titans’ bevy of three-point shooters and mature, strong centers. … Junior forward Chris Smith has made 38 of 42 free throws for 90.5%, best in the Pac-12.


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