Mick Cronin likes to compare coaches to starting pitchers. Their players are the hitters they face.
You have to change speeds, Cronin says, use different pitches. The same approach for one player won’t work for another. The point guard might not respond to the yelling that motivates the power forward, requiring a softer touch.
“It’s a long season and certain hitters, you’ve got to throw them the curve,” Cronin said recently with just a handful of games left in his first season at UCLA. “Certain guys, you’ve got to work the insides.”
Cronin has thrown the equivalent of a complete-game shutout with the Bruins, becoming the Pac-12 Conference’s John R. Wooden coach of the year Monday in a vote of conference coaches after guiding a team picked to finish eighth in the conference to second place.
Cronin becomes the first UCLA coach to win the award since Ben Howland during the 2005-06 season, when the Bruins advanced to the national championship game. Cronin, 48, is also the first coach to win the award in his debut season in the Pac-12 since Washington’s Mike Hopkins two years ago.
UCLA’s Chris Smith was selected the conference’s most improved player and a member of the 10-player first team after more than doubling his scoring average from 6.3 points as a sophomore to 13.1 points as a junior. Jaime Jaquez Jr. was selected honorable mention all-freshman team and Jalen Hill honorable mention all-defensive team.
Oregon’s Payton Pritchard was the Pac-12’s player of the year after leading the Ducks to the conference’s regular-season championship. USC’s Onyeka Okongwu was a member of the first team and all-freshman team while being edged by Arizona’s Zeke Nnaji for freshman of the year. Trojans guard Jonah Mathews was a dual winner, selected to the second team and the all-defensive team.
Colorado’s Tyler Bey was the defensive player of the year and Arizona State’s Alonzo Verge Jr. the sixth man of the year.
Cronin drilled a defense-first mentality and a tenaciousness into players who were primarily focused on piling up points under predecessor Steve Alford. Cronin also had to redefine roles and search for scorers on a team that started two freshmen, two sophomores and a junior while bringing a freshman and two sophomores off the bench as top reserves.
“Not only are they learning me, but I’m learning them,” Cronin said recently. “I’ve realized they’re young and they haven’t won and they’re fragile, so I have to do everything I can to tell them, ‘We can do it, I believe in them.’ ”
Cronin continually backed his players even as he was hard on them, slamming a clipboard to the court and earning a technical foul in December after officials changed a call that initially went against North Carolina and pinned it on Hill.
“North Carolina guy turns and elbows Jalen in the mouth,” Cronin groused afterward, “and it’s a foul on Jalen.”
Success came slowly for the Bruins (19-12 overall, 12-6 Pac-12), who open the conference tournament in the quarterfinal round Thursday evening at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas against Stanford or California.
UCLA was 1-3 in the Pac-12 and 8-9 overall after a setback against Stanford in mid-January left some fans wondering whether the Bruins could somehow inch their record above .500. They went on to win 11 of 13 games, including seven in a row, before a 54-52 loss to USC on Saturday.
“Unbelievable regular season in my first year, couldn’t be more proud of my guys,” Cronin said after the game. “Sure, we wanted to win, it would have been great, but our season is not over and I’m here for the long haul, so I’m really proud of the guys.”
Cronin increasingly credited his players as the Bruins began their slow climb up the conference standings, reminding reporters that he never made a basket or grabbed a rebound.
“There was never not buy-in,” Cronin said of his players. “We just needed to learn how to play smarter at game time. So we had been practicing hard all year, it just wasn’t manifesting itself in the games and it just took us some time to play smarter, better shot selection, more intelligent defense and game experience, in fairness. We’re really young.”
It also took time for Cronin to learn which approach worked best with each player, utilizing a full repertoire of verbal pitches that included plenty of fastballs from a coach who favors brutal honesty.
“I feel like every tough game was a turning point where he would kind of get into us and we’d have to be honest with each other,” redshirt sophomore forward Cody Riley said, “so we would have team meetings and it just brought everything into the open and made sure we’re all on the same page. He’s just really upfront with us and then we try to solve it as a group, we come together even closer.”