Considering the strength of USC’s frontcourt, Mick Cronin was asked if he would have to go big more often when UCLA hosts its crosstown rival on Saturday.
“I would say ... ,” Cronin started, only to fumble for words.
The coach ran his left hand over his bald head.
“I would disagree with … ,” he said.
Cronin crossed his arms. After a couple of more sentence fragments, he abandoned his search for a diplomatic answer and got to the point.
“Is our big lineup better than their big lineup?” he asked.
The question was rhetorical. The answer was obvious: No.
Cronin broke the silence with a chuckle.
Such frankness has become a trademark of UCLA’s new coach in the first two-plus months of the college basketball season.
The Bruins are 8-7 overall and 1-1 in the Pac-12 Conference, their record an accurate reflection of their mediocrity. Cronin comes across as warm and welcoming, but he also won’t sugarcoat the truth.
“We played with no toughness in the second half,” he said after his team’s overtime defeat at Washington State on Saturday.
Following an upset loss at home to Cal State Fullerton that marked the low point of an up-and-down season, Cronin said, “I apologize to our fans for our defensive effort once again. Sickening. Beyond sickening. Sickening at the highest level.”
In practice the next week, Cronin didn’t allow coaches or players to wear tops or shorts with the UCLA logo.
“We didn’t deserve them,” he said.
Cronin’s Midwestern candor marks a refreshing change of pace, not only for the school, but also for a city known for such professional filibusterers as Stan Kasten and Dan Guerrero.
And UCLA’s players appear to be responding to their coach’s blunt form of communication.
“You just got to know it’s not personal,” freshman guard Jaime Jaquez Jr. said.
That’s something Cronin has emphasized to the Bruins.
“He always reminds us, like, ‘Listen, don’t take anything I say personal,’ ” Jaquez said.
Cronin has emphasized his commitment to his players, even though they were recruited by predecessor Steve Alford.
“What frustrates me is when people say, ‘Well, it’s not your players,’ ” he said last week. “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.”
What he does believe in is honesty.
And his honest assessment now is that the Bruins don’t have the offensive weapons to win high-scoring games. UCLA doesn’t have a former McDonald’s All-American on its roster.
“You want to win games, you got to play defense,” Cronin said. “It’s really not rocket science.”
He pointed to the Bruins’ 8-0 record when opponents score fewer than 70 points.
“I couldn’t have got into UCLA,” he continued. “But I can figure out if we’re 8-0 when you give up less than 70, you might want to give up less than 70.”
Cronin said he would consider this season a success if he can establish a new culture for the program.
“There’s effort and there’s winning effort,” he said. “Big difference. Playing winning basketball is physically and mentally giving everything you have to win and worrying about nothing else.”
Experience is a factor too.
“All teams give effort,” Cronin said. “It’s usually the team that can sustain it that eventually imposes their will on the other team. So that’s what we’re learning how to do.”
Cronin said he was proud of how the Bruins closed out a win at Washington in their conference opener.
“In the past, you know, those guys may have caved,” he said.
Players have noticed a gradual shift in the team’s mentality.
“During the beginning, everyone was working hard, but we weren’t really working together,” freshman guard Jake Kyman said. “Now, after the break and Cal State Fullerton and coming into the Pac-12, I think that everyone has really bought into the fact of togetherness and we have to do this as a team and it’s not going to be done individually.”
Creating the right culture is only part of the long-term plan. Recruiting the right players is the other.
As part of its next freshman class, UCLA will have Daishen Nix, the top-ranked point guard in the nation.
Cronin said Nix is the kind of player he wants — a high-caliber talent who also knows how to win.
Asked if he was confident of his ability to attract enough players like that to return UCLA to national prominence, Cronin replied, “Absolutely.”
Cronin was considerably less forthcoming on the subject of the team’s remote chances of reaching the NCAA tournament this season.
“I don’t know,” he said.
The answer was uncharacteristically evasive. Cronin explained why, mentioning seniors Prince Ali and Alex Olesinski.
“I think it would be unfair of me to say, ‘That’s not what we’re trying to do,’ because that would be unfair to Prince and Alex,” he said. “But I’ve got a real simple formula for that. Give up 60 a game the rest of the year, we’ll make it. Do we have the toughness and fortitude to be able to do that? We’re going to try. That would get us there.”
Cronin finished the thought with another truthful observation.
“We don’t have the offensive firepower on this team to do it any other way,” he said.