Mick Cronin isn’t shifting UCLA’s focus solely to the future amid struggles

UCLA has struggled mightily, but coach Mick Cronin isn't going to take playing time away from older players such as Prince Ali in an effort to develop younger players.
(Elaine Thompson / Associated Press)

In at least one respect, Mick Cronin would make a questionable NBA general manager.

The UCLA coach refuses to lose games intentionally to better position his team for next season.

“I think you’d set a bad precedent,” Cronin said this week when asked about prioritizing development over winning. “If you’re watching a game, and it could be our last game of the season, we’re trying to win.”

Winning hasn’t been much of an issue for a coach who had made it to the NCAA tournament in nine consecutive seasons at Cincinnati, but his Bruins (9-9 overall, 2-3 Pac-12 Conference) probably will play their last game of this season in the Pac-12 tournament barring some sort of magical run.

That means Cronin could easily roll out a lineup rife with freshmen and sophomores for the balance of the season to accelerate their development at the expense of the team’s older players. Not going to happen, Cronin said. Besides, the lineups he’s playing are already rife with freshmen and sophomores.


“Our young guys all play now,” Cronin said.

Well, maybe not all of them.

Forward Shareef O’Neal, son of Shaquille O’Neal, tweeted on Wednesday that he plans to transfer out of UCLA.

Shareef O’Neal didn’t play against California last weekend even though the redshirt freshman could use more minutes. Cronin explained that O’Neal wasn’t ready to face the Golden Bears’ brawny big men and still had trouble staying in front of his counterparts on the perimeter.

“He’s trying to get better in practice,” Cronin said.

O’Neal’s minutes went to redshirt senior Alex Olesinski and redshirt sophomores Jalen Hill and Cody Riley. The latter two players still need more than a dash of seasoning themselves.

Cronin has said he’s committed to using the lineups best suited to helping his team win. For more than two months, those often included Prince Ali because of what Cronin said was the redshirt senior guard’s ability to sustain effort and his fearlessness in driving toward the basket, traits the coach maintained were lacking in the team’s younger players.

But Ali appeared to fall out of favor with his coach last week after a regrettable cameo appearance against Stanford in which he was twice beaten off the dribble and chucked a shot straight into the air, leading to his benching after less than two minutes of playing time. Ali did not play against Cal two days later because of an ankle injury but returned to practice Tuesday and should be available for the Bruins’ game against Oregon State (12-6, 2-4) on Thursday night at Gill Coliseum.

UCLA coach Mick Cronin instructs his players during a loss to North Carolina on Dec. 21.
(John Locher / Associated Press)

Cronin has said he owed it to Ali and Olesinski to win now because they stuck around for their final college seasons when they could have easily gone elsewhere as graduate transfers. And it’s not like the Bruins would be granted the first pick of high school players in the spring signing period, Cronin noted, should they lose the rest of their games.

The development of UCLA’s younger players has come organically through practice and Cronin’s ongoing search for his best lineups. Freshman guard Jaime Jaquez Jr. has become a mainstay, sophomore guard David Singleton recently supplanted Ali in the starting lineup and freshman guard Jake Kyman has seen a steady uptick in his minutes since a breakthrough performance against Washington this month.

The Bruins’ rotation against Cal included only nine players, down from 11 earlier in the season, allowing players to familiarize themselves with each other’s strengths.

“You get into a groove with those guys that you’re out there playing with,” Jaquez said. “You kind of develop on-court relationships, know what guys are gonna do, what they’re gonna do well and, you know, places where you can help each other out.”

UCLA hadn’t won a game at home since Dec. 8 until California came to Pauley Pavilion.

Better days appear on the horizon for the Bruins. UCLA recently learned it would be eligible for the 2021 NCAA tournament after its APR scores for the 2018-19 school year were sufficient to keep it above the four-year 930 threshold required for postseason participation.

In the meantime, there are no plans to lose now, even if it meant the possibility of a few more wins later.

“It’s not in my DNA,” Cronin said. “If somebody is out there, you can rest assured, I think right there he’s trying to give us the best chance to win a game.”

Up next for UCLA: at Oregon State on Thursday

When: 8 p.m.

Where: Gill Coliseum, Corvallis, Ore.

On the air: TV: FS1; Radio: 570.

Update: Cronin lamented his inability to simulate Oregon State forward Tres Tinkle in practice because of his players’ inability to replicate the star senior’s ample skill set. Tinkle is among the leading candidates for Pac-12 player of the year during a season in which he’s averaging 19.7 points and 6.9 rebounds per game while making 42.4% of his three-pointers. The Beavers are coming off consecutive road losses to the Washington schools but defeated Arizona in their last home game and have beaten the Bruins the last two times the teams have faced one another at Gill Coliseum.