Mick Cronin likes to use a baseball analogy when discussing how he’s reaching his players.
Some need an unabridged verbal critique, like a fastball whizzing past their ribs. Others require more coddling, so the UCLA coach will take a softer approach and use one of his offspeed pitches.
“It’s the best analogy because you have to throw them different pitches to different personalities,” Cronin said Friday. “A guy like Chris Smith, he wants to please me and I’ve learned I’ve got to do everything I can to keep his head up and his concentration and his focus. He’s a guy who gets down on himself too easily.”
Then there’s Jaime Jaquez Jr., a freshman guard who can take all the pelting that his coach wants to deliver.
“Jaime, I’m on him,” Cronin said, “but in a quiet moment, I tell him, ‘Look buddy, I know I’m coaching you like a senior, but I know you can take it.’ He’s different personality.”
Cronin has unleashed his full repertoire over the last week while getting the Bruins (10-9 overall, 3-3 Pac-12 Conference) to play their best basketball of the season heading into a showdown against No. 12 Oregon (16-4, 5-2) on Sunday afternoon at Matthew Knight Arena.
UCLA held California scoreless for 11 minutes last weekend while limiting the Golden Bears to 40 points and shut down Oregon State for long stretches on Thursday during a 62-58 victory. It was easily the Bruins’ best back-to-back defensive efforts of the season and came immediately after Cronin unfurled one of his nastiest pitches while addressing his players following a home loss to Stanford on Jan. 15.
“They needed to realize I was at a breaking point, that enough was enough,” Cronin said. “Whether I had to go to [football coach] Chip Kelly and get some linebackers or play nonscholarship guys, they hadn’t really seen that side of me yet.”
Nine days later, Cronin acknowledged that it was a calculated effort to coax the needed defensive accountability out of his players. UCLA’s adjusted defensive efficiency is ranked No. 173 nationally according to the metrics of analyst Ken Pomeroy, not good but a significant improvement over a week ago, when it topped 200.
It took them more than half a season, but the Bruins seem to have finally embraced a defensive identity.
“The biggest difference is our team mentality of, that’s how we’re going to win — we’re not going to let these guys score,” Cronin said. “We’re going to do our best on offense, try to score the most we can, but no matter what happens, we’re going to try to stop them and get every rebound and every loose ball. These are things we can control.”
The team appears to have found its designated stopper in redshirt sophomore forward Jalen Hill, whose block of a layup by Oregon State’s Kylor Kelley with 27 seconds left Thursday preserved the Bruins’ three-point lead.
“Defensively, his effort level’s totally changed,” Cronin said of Hill. “You can’t be a good defensive team if you don’t have some sort of anchor in the middle, it’s really hard, and he’s been really trying to buy into being our anchor. He didn’t have a field goal [Thursday] night, but we would have had no chance without his rebounding and defense.”
Cronin said he can see Hill’s effort level rubbing off on his teammates through their lunging for deflections and increasingly energetic rotations.
It’s the sort of team-wide buy-in that prompted Cronin to lob a softball when assessing how far his players have come since he brought the heat after the Stanford game.
“It’s a two-way street,” Cronin said. “When they do it, you’ve got to give them credit. Our effort’s been great, our attitude’s been great … It takes a while to turn a guy into [realizing] how hard he has to compete and how much he has to concentrate to become a good defender, to build habits, and it’s not easy and if you’re not totally focused on it, you’re not going to be able to do it.”
Up next for UCLA: Sunday at Oregon
When: 2 p.m.
Where: Matthew Knight Arena, Eugene, Ore.
On the air: TV: Fox-TV Channel 11; Radio: KEIB-AM (1150).
Update: Oregon is 11-0 at home thanks in large part to the play of senior point guard Payton Pritchard, a leading candidate for Pac-12 player of the year during a season in which he’s averaging 19.8 points and 5.8 assists per game. Cronin said he envisioned Pritchard’s jersey hanging in the rafters at Matthew Knight Arena someday. “He’s a dominant player in every way, shape and form,” Cronin said, citing Pritchard’s ability to make three-pointers, pull up for jumpers in the lane, finish at the rim and find his teammates for assists. “He should be the poster child for college basketball.”