Column: UCLA coach Mick Cronin delivering unexpected with current roster

UCLA players Tyger Campbell (10), David Singleton (34), Jaime Jaquez Jr. (4), Jalen Hill (24) and Chris Smith (5) listen as head coach Mick Cronin talks during a timeout in the second half against Arizona at Pauley Pavilion on Saturday.
(Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images)

There’s a new wizard in Westwood.

Blasphemy? Probably, especially on a campus where there is a bronze statue of John Wooden.

But what other way is there to convey the scale of the miracles Mick Cronin has performed in his first season as UCLA’s basketball coach?

Developments anticipated two or three years into the future are happening already, as a team that was in last place in its conference only a month and a half ago now stands alone atop the Pac-12.

By winning each of their last seven games, the Bruins have improved to 19-11 overall and 12-5 in their conference. They have secured a bye in the first round in the Pac-12 tournament. They are projected as a No. 12 seed in the NCAA tournament, according to ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi.


UCLA shot 33.3% but scored when necessary, closing the game on a 13-4 run to move into sole possession of first place in the Pac-12 Conference.

Feb. 29, 2020

And Cronin has orchestrated this 180-degree turnaround with a roster made up entirely of role players.

The Bruins don’t have a single former McDonald’s All-American and let’s just say they can’t blame the selection committee for that.

Members of UCLA royalty who were in attendance at the team’s most recent game — Gail Goodrich, Bill Walton, Jamaal Wilkes and Baron Davis — were living reminders of what these Bruins aren’t.

Under Cronin, the 11-time national champions have exchanged the glamour of Hollywood for the tenacity of Los Angeles, their triumphs a result of them hurling their bodies after loose balls rather than punctuating fast breaks with high-flying dunks.

The magician himself couldn’t envision this.

“There were days I didn’t know if I’d make it through the year, physically,” Cronin said. “I was just hoping in December I could make it to January. Then I was hoping I could make it to February and stay upright all year.”


Cronin had to do more than impart a new mind set. Convincing his players to prioritize defense and to exert effort on that end of the court was only the start.

“Lot of people talk about playing hard,” Cronin said. “It’s not enough. We really, really didn’t play smart for a couple months. It deflates your energy when you play defense and somebody doesn’t do something smart.”

Arizona's Max Hazzard (5) guards UCLA's Tyger Campbell (10) as he drives to the basket in the first half at Pauley Pavilion on Saturday.
(Jayne Kamin-Oncea / Getty Images)

Cronin couldn’t identify when everything came together for his team.

“That’s the million-dollar question I don’t have the answer to,” he said.

The Bruins have won 11 of their last 13 games. Right before that stretch, they were beaten at home by Stanford, prompting him to verbally administer a dose of his trademark tough love on the players. But Cronin believes the team’s transformation was a gradual process, not the byproduct of a singular event.

“We had been practicing better than we played for a long time,” he said.

Cronin recalled a specific practice in December that he described as one of the best of his career. But when UCLA played North Carolina in Las Vegas the following day, they were taken apart, 74-64.

“It just wasn’t manifesting itself in the games,” he said.

It is now.

A 69-64 victory over Arizona at Pauley Pavilion on Saturday night was a perfect representation of the team UCLA has become.

The Bruins made only a third of their shots from the field, including 23.1% in the first half. Leading scorer Chris Smith finished with 17 points but was only 5-of-15 shooting. Point guard Tyger Campbell banked in a go-ahead basket with 49 seconds to play, but missed all 10 of his previous shots.

The heroics of Smith and Campbell were made possible by a defense that stopped Arizona on six consecutive possessions over a three-minute 27-second stretch. The Bruins turned a 62-58 deficit into a 68-62 advantage.

Cronin made it a point to mention how the Bruins didn’t just play defense. They played smart defense.

The Bruins didn’t commit their seventh foul of the second half until there were only 10 seconds remaining in the game. Because they didn’t have to worry about sending their opponents to the free-throw line, they were able to defend more aggressively.

Three UCLA freshmen were the heroes behind a stunning victory over Arizona State on Thursday, showcasing a glimpse of a very promising future for the Bruins.

Feb. 28, 2020

They were also smart with the ball in their hands, committing only one turnover in the second half.

But Cronin has re-educated more than his players. He’s also reconditioned the fans.

Less than two minutes into the game, Arizona was unable to pass the ball inside and moved the ball around the perimeter. As the shot clock wound down to five seconds, then four, the crowd started to applaud in appreciation of the Bruins’ defensive effort. The claps became full-blown cheers when UCLA forward Jalen Hill collected the rebound from the low-percentage shot the Wildcats misfired.

The fans were like this the entire night, celebrating when Jules Bernard blocked a shot or Jaime Jaquez Jr. leaped to save a ball from falling out of bounds.

The sounds in the arena were familiar. These were the cries of a crowd that was looking forward to March.

Cronin will presumably have better teams in the future. But this season will always be special, as he did something few UCLA coaches before him have ever done: He has delivered the unexpected to a fan base that expects it all.