Every day is training day for UCLA’s defense under Mick Cronin
Mick Cronin likes to recite random movie lines in practice to make a point and lighten the mood. Most of the quotes go over the heads of players some three decades younger than the UCLA coach, except for senior guard Chris Smith, who has gotten some of the references from having watched older films with his father while growing up.
When it comes to forging the sturdy defense he wants, Cronin uses a line from “Man on Fire,” a 2004 thriller about a U.S. Marine-turned-bodyguard starring Denzel Washington.
“There is no such thing as tough,” Washington says in the film. “There’s trained and there’s untrained.”
Stumbling into its first NCAA tournament under his guidance after four consecutive losses, Cronin acknowledged that his young team hasn’t fully learned how to compensate for its defensive deficiencies in size, length and athleticism, leaving it vulnerable in games when its offense isn’t humming.
“You either need to have so much talent that it supersedes the fact that you’re untrained and you just erase your mistakes because you’re better than the other guy and you can just block the shot,” Cronin told The Times on Sunday after learning that his Bruins (17-9) would face Michigan State (15-12) on Thursday night in a First Four game at Purdue’s Mackey Arena in West Lafayette, Ind. “We don’t have that. So we’ve got a lot of four-year players that need training.”
Gonzaga is the top-seeded team in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament and has been given the best odds to be the March Madness champion.
UCLA’s defense has enjoyed a slight uptick in efficiency during Cronin’s second season, but the Bruins are nowhere near the lockdown menace the coach had in his final years at Cincinnati, when the Bearcats’ defense routinely ranked among the best in the nation. The Bruins’ adjusted defensive efficiency is ranked No. 86 nationally, according to the metrics of basketball analyst Ken Pomeroy, an improvement from No. 112 last season.
“We’re not that far off,” Cronin said. “We just don’t have margin for error. We’ve just got to try to get better where we can sustain it.”
Cronin’s teaching efforts were compromised over the last few months by the loss of two veteran players who also happened to be among the Bruins’ best defenders. Smith, the team’s only senior, was lost for the season Dec. 31 because of a knee injury. Redshirt junior forward Jalen Hill, the team’s top interior defender, departed in early February because of personal reasons and has not returned.
Illustrating how much he is missed, Hill’s 15 blocks still rank second on the team behind Jaime Jaquez Jr.’s 17 despite the fact that Hill has played 618 fewer minutes than Jaquez. Pomeroy’s metrics showed that UCLA’s defense has ranked No. 78 nationally with Hill in the lineup this season versus No. 101 without him.
The absences of Hill and Smith have forced the 6-foot-6 Jaquez to defend power forwards while also thrusting freshman forward Mac Etienne, who would be competing for his prep school had the COVID-19 pandemic not prompted him to graduate early, into the rotation. They have also deprived the Bruins of needed rim protection, making players cheat toward providing help defense and leaving the team susceptible to drive-and-kick plays.
“We don’t have that weakside guy rotating to block shots to save the day if somebody gets beat off the dribble,” Cronin said, “so our margin for error is slimmer defensively when you lose length and athleticism.”
Michigan State’s size shouldn’t bother the Bruins if it sticks with the small lineup that coach Tom Izzo used as part of a late-season shakeup that resulted in upset victories over Illinois, Ohio State and Michigan. But the Spartans could punish the Bruins by attacking the paint and getting post players Cody Riley and Jaquez into foul trouble.
Both players fouled out toward the end of UCLA’s loss to Oregon State in the Pac-12 Conference tournament, a precursor to the completion of the Bruins’ latest collapse. During the Bruins’ four-game losing streak, opponents have shot 58% in the second half while making 45.5% of their three-point tries.
Cronin spent this past weekend focused on his team’s conditioning in an effort to keep players fresher in the final minutes and avert another meltdown. The coach said he would also tweak his substitution patterns so that his starters weren’t logging the heavy minutes that fueled a surge in turnovers down the stretch of each game, further impairing the defense.
That was the case late in the losses to Colorado and Oregon. The Buffaloes scored 16 points off nine turnovers in the second half, and the Ducks scored 12 points off 12 turnovers in the second half.
“If we’re taking care of the ball,” Cronin said, “teams can’t get out on the break and we don’t give away easy baskets.”
It’s been 26 years since a team from Los Angeles last won an NCAA title, and that’s why UCLA’s and USC’s dance into March Madness 2021 is so promising.
Riley acknowledged that the team had a tendency to count on production from an offense that ranks No. 26 nationally in adjusted efficiency to offset its defensive shortcomings, often to its own detriment.
“Sometimes we get lackadaisical, rely on our offense too much,” Riley said, “and I feel like when it comes down to defense, if we just focus on that, everything else will take care of itself.”
In a sign that a starting lineup featuring two juniors and three sophomores is closer to being trained to Cronin’s liking, the Bruins played some of their best defense of the season in the first half against Oregon State. They failed to sustain it, revealing once again all the reasons they can’t get stops with more regularity.
“You’ve got to be athletic, you’ve got to have some length, and it really helps to have experience,” Cronin said. “We struggle in all three areas.”
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