Mick Cronin spurs UCLA’s turnaround by keeping it real with his players
Mick Cronin always has four speeches ready when he meets with reporters after games, something the UCLA coach learned from former boss Rick Pitino as a way to prepare for any scenario.
Cronin gives the first speech when his team plays well and wins. He uses the second when it plays poorly and wins. He pulls out the third when it plays well and loses. The fourth, well, that one is better left inside the luxuriously lined pocket of his Loro Piana suits.
Cronin unleashed it last month after Stanford stomped the Bruins inside Pauley Pavilion, leaving them with a losing record after they had wilted in the second half. The first-year coach called his players soft and selfish. He said they refused to listen and follow rules. He threatened to inquire with coach Chip Kelly about importing some players from the football team.
“He started calling guys out, got really personal,” redshirt sophomore forward Jalen Hill recalled Tuesday. “That’s what needed to happen.”
Team meetings followed. Players vowed to give the sustained effort their coach wanted. Starters, reserves and walk-ons alike talked about what each of them could do better.
UCLA has gone 9-2 since, reviving a season that appeared to have perished with the loss to the Cardinal that gave the Bruins a third loss in four games to start Pac-12 Conference play. Less than two months later, first place in the conference standings will be a real and surreal possibility Thursday night at Pauley Pavilion when UCLA (17-11,10-5) faces Arizona State (19-8, 10-4).
UCLA is the hottest team in the Pac-12, and Mick Cronin’s crew needs to keep winning games to have a decent shot of making the NCAA tournament.
“Obviously,” Cronin said before breaking into a smile, “we all saw this coming five weeks ago.”
Pinning his team’s turnaround on one postgame tirade is too easy of a narrative for Cronin, who pointed to improved defense, a lineup change and newfound humility as the primary factors in his team’s resurgence. Of course, Cronin sparked each of those transformations as well, starting with his commitment to making other teams feel like they’re playing in mud.
The Bruins have limited their opponents to an average of 65.1 points over their last 11 games after finally learning how to stay in front of their man and use single coverage in the post, eliminating the need for help from defenders that left the three-point line uncovered.
They have also benefited from the insertion of sophomore guard David Singleton into the starting lineup because of his heady play, hustle and a leadership style that Cronin described as “a senior’s mentality.”
The team’s humility arrived after a late December home loss to Cal State Fullerton, when Cronin called his players out over their arrogance and made them wear practice gear without any UCLA logos. Two months later, that conceit still befuddled the coach, particularly given the Bruins were coming off a season in which they finished 17-16 and suffered a 93-64 loss to Cronin’s Cincinnati Bearcats.
“We had no sense of reality,” Cronin said while sitting on a plush leather seat inside the film room of the Mo Ostin Center. “We thought we were a lot better than we were, for whatever reason. You hear all the things — L.A., L.A. hype — but I came from a place where we beat you 90-something to 60-something.
“It became obvious, we thought we were a lot better than we were and you had to lose, get your ass beat — I don’t know how else to say it — to realize that we’re not that good.”
Some of the Bruins’ early struggles were foreseeable to Cronin after spending his first handful of months on the job without two of his top players. Freshman point guard Tyger Campbell, coming off major knee surgery, wasn’t cleared to practice until late September. Singleton, coming off a broken foot, wasn’t cleared until about a week before the season opener.
“Your first five, six months of putting in what you’re doing, those guys weren’t on the floor,” Cronin said. “So we were just way behind.”
Cronin had to assess his roster anew once it was fully stocked, deciding which players deserved more playing time and which players deserved less. There was a defection along the way, redshirt freshman forward Shareef O’Neal announcing his departure in late January after he did not play during a victory over California.
Those who remained have mostly thrived. Cronin likened part of his job to that of an NBA general manager, identifying which players could help not just now but in seasons to come.
“If a guy’s going to be coachable and work really hard, like a Cody Riley,” Cronin said, referring to the redshirt sophomore forward who has experienced a recent breakthrough, “he is part of your solution for the future. And we’ve got a lot of young guys and they’re only part of the solution if they’re going to be willing to play winning basketball.”
Some could see success coming amid the losses. The Bruins were sharper in practice than they were in games through the season’s first few months, portending better days ahead. Larry Eustachy, a former longtime college coach, provided some comforting advice by telling Cronin he was building the team regardless of the results.
“The problem,” Cronin said, repeating what Eustachy told him, “is when the guy’s building a building, sometimes you’re working on the interior and you’re driving by and it doesn’t look good. Eventually, it will change and it will get built.”
UCLA’s Pac-12 winning streak has helped lift the Bruins to 8-3 against the spread in their last 11 games.
The pace of construction could quicken next season with the arrival of highly coveted recruits Daishen Nix and Jaylen Clark, in addition to a change of pace. Cronin said he wanted to play faster, even now, but has been limited by the need to keep his freshmen as fresh as possible while playing a college schedule for the first time.
“I have to make sure Tyger doesn’t pass out,” Cronin said.
Any fainting might come as a result of critiques issued by a coach some fans have dubbed Cronin the Barbarian as a play off the fictitious warrior Conan. The harangues started well before the Stanford game but have largely subsided in recent weeks.
“I feel like every tough game was kind of a turning point,” Riley said, “where he would kind of get into us and we’d have to be honest with each other.”
Cronin’s unabridged approach has his team on the verge of a possible surprise NCAA tournament appearance while making him one of the most popular figures on campus.
Yet Cronin always keeps humility handy, like one of his prepared speeches, ready to repeat the words of friend Kenny Pignatello.
“As he says, peacock today, feather duster tomorrow,” Cronin said. “So you try not to spread your wings or you end up a feather duster. You try to remain low and realize in our sport, it changes quick.”
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