Mick Cronin might as well have commandeered the public-address system late Wednesday night, declaring his intentions to everyone inside Pauley Pavilion.
The UCLA coach openly broadcast in his comments to reporters after his team’s latest loss how the season’s final two months will go for his players.
Those who listen and show some semblance of understanding what their coach wants will play. Those who don’t could suffer the fate of redshirt senior guard Prince Ali, whose 1 minute 49 seconds of playing time against Stanford appeared to be a tipping point for his coach.
In that short span, Ali was beaten off the dribble twice. On offense, he drove into two defenders and heaved a shot straight into the air that was snatched by the Cardinal.
Ali was subbed out nine seconds later, never to return. Barring a change in his compliance with his coach’s wishes, it may have been the end of an era for a veteran used to starting and playing heavy minutes.
Cronin never mentioned Ali by name after his team’s 74-59 loss but seemed to be talking about him when he discussed players getting tethered to the bench for a refusal to listen and follow the rules.
“So if you want to ask me about a certain guy,” Cronin said, “that’s the answer.”
The coach also indicated that he was not pleased with Ali’s habits on defense this late in his college career.
“Our older guys are bad defensive players, which is really ridiculous because it’s not like they didn’t do scouting reports before me,” Cronin said. “If you’re in your fifth year, you should know how to play defense by now.”
Cronin also mentioned his disappointment with junior guard Chris Smith’s “lack of competitiveness” on a night the team’s leading scorer tallied six points and four traveling violations, but Smith’s playing time is probably safe given his strong recent play before this week and his value on an offensively challenged team.
The primary beneficiary of Ali’s demotion was sophomore guard David Singleton, who responded to his first start of the season with 11 points and no turnovers in a season-high 32 minutes. Cronin said Singleton had earned the start with his two best practices of the season, and he probably earned at least one more based on his play Wednesday.
Another player who enjoyed an increased role was redshirt sophomore forward Jalen Hill, who supplanted Cody Riley in the starting lineup and could do so for the foreseeable future given his play against Stanford. Hill tallied 14 points, 12 rebounds, three blocks, two steals and two assists in 31 minutes while fulfilling his coach’s mandate.
“It’s when you’re out there,” Hill said, “play the hardest and the smartest you can.”
Winnowing his rotation could allow Cronin to enhance the development of younger players while allowing the Bruins (8-9 overall, 1-3 Pac-12 Conference) to develop some much-needed rhythm. Freshmen Jake Kyman and Shareef O’Neal are other candidates to play additional minutes given their recent play.
As for the players whose minutes take a hit, Cronin alluded to the potential for transfers after this season.
“They’re going to get challenged every day by me,” Cronin said of his players. “Those who want to play with some pride and stand in the ring and fight will remain. They’ll get better, too. That’s what happens if you fight through it.”
When: 5 p.m. Sunday.
Where: Pauley Pavilion.
On the air: TV: ESPNU; Radio: 570.
Update: California (8-9, 2-2) is in a spot similar to that of the Bruins, enduring rocky patches under a new coach. The Golden Bears put up barely any fight Thursday during an 88-56 loss to USC. UCLA’s Tyger Campbell and Cody Riley have been cleared to play against Cal after suffering injuries against Stanford.