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UCLA’s Mick Cronin knows how agonizing March Madness can be

UCLA head coach Mick Cronin holds up a finger and calls to his team.
UCLA’s Mick Cronin is one of five coaches to take his teams to the last 10 NCAA tournaments. He has advanced to the second week of play once.
(Andy Nelson / Associated Press)

After years of March sadness, the brackets were finally busting Mick Cronin’s way.

Virginia became the first top-seeded team to fall to a No. 16 seed, immortalizing the University of Maryland-Baltimore County. Third-seeded Tennessee went down to Loyola of Chicago, as if preordained by Ramblers superfan Sister Jean. Fourth-seeded Arizona got trampled by Buffalo, completing another depressing postseason for the Pac-12.

That left Cronin’s second-seeded Cincinnati Bearcats as the lone remaining heavyweight in the 2018 NCAA tournament’s South Region. All that stood between Cronin and his first Final Four was seventh-seeded Nevada and nobody more frightening than fifth-seeded Kentucky on the other side of the bracket.

If Cincinnati could get past the Wolf Pack in the second round, the plan was for the Bearcats to bus straight to Atlanta for the regional semifinal. In his mind, as he watched his son’s team build a 22-point lead in the second half, Hep Cronin was going to Atlanta — if not San Antonio for the Final Four.

“Our side of the bracket, before we had played that second game, the one, three and four [seeds] had already lost,” the elder Cronin recalled shortly after his son took the UCLA job a year later. “They’re thinking, we’re going to the Final Four!”

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UCLA coach Mick Cronin knows this Bruins team hasn’t fully learned how to compensate for its defensive deficiencies in size, length and athleticism.

It was going to be the long-awaited breakthrough for Mick Cronin. He had taken Cincinnati to eight consecutive NCAA tournaments while advancing to only one regional semifinal, the lack of more deep runs serving as the one blemish on an otherwise exceptional coaching resume.

He’s now one of just five coaches to take his teams to the last 10 NCAA tournaments, joining Michigan State’s Tom Izzo, North Carolina’s Roy Williams, Kansas’ Bill Self and Gonzaga’s Mark Few.

In his second season with the Bruins and the first in which an NCAA tournament is being staged, Cronin has guided the Bruins (17-9) to a First Four game on Thursday against Michigan State (15-12) at Purdue’s Mackey Arena, where Cronin’s team won’t face the outsized expectations that confronted Cincinnati three years ago.

That was easily his best team, the Bearcats earning their lofty seeding by winning 30 games and the American Athletic Conference regular-season and tournament championships. They looked every bit like a national title contender while building that 22-point cushion over Nevada with 11½ minutes left.

From his seat inside Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena, Hep Cronin watched every remaining possession in disbelief.

“You’ve seen games like that and you’re thinking, oh, it can’t happen,” he recalled. “You’re 22 up. All of a sudden, we got cold. Wide-open shot, no good. Jacob Evans has a wide-open layup and loses the ball out of bounds. It’s 15 and it’s 11 and there’s like five minutes to play. We’re still all right.

“All of a sudden, they hit a three at the [shot-clock] buzzer. We’re playing great defense and the guy falls back and hits a damn bank shot. We get an offensive pick foul on a dribble. Bam, it’s five. It just blew up. They tied it and shot. What we pride ourselves on cost us the game. They shot a terrible shot, we played great defense, they missed, we didn’t rebound the ball. The guy got the rebound and laid it in. We had a chance to go down the floor and we missed.”

That was that, splat was splat. Cincinnati’s collapse was complete, a 75-73 setback sending sobbing forward Gary Clark into Cronin’s consoling arms after he had failed to box out on that late rebound.

A coach surrounded by players
Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin talks to his team during a timeout against Nevada during the 2018 NCAA basketball tournament.
(Mark Humphrey / Associated Press)

So much for those travel plans. The Bearcats’ bus would be headed back to campus, not to Atlanta. Hep Cronin said his son went into seclusion, nobody seeing him for a week.

Three years later, the sting of his most crushing NCAA tournament defeat remained evident in Mick Cronin’s voice.

“The NCAA tournament can be a cruel thing, buddy,” Cronin said this week. “You know, things are going great — I’ve won conference tournaments and your team’s on a roll and it’s like driving off a cliff — boom, your season’s over. Only one team wins every game. You go from dancing in locker rooms and water baths to your season’s over within a matter of days. I mean, the emotions are crazy.”

It was the thought of ascending a ladder inside some cavernous Final Four dome that drove Cronin to UCLA, where the combination of elite academics, shorts-in-January weather and unparalleled basketball tradition provided a chance to add to the Bruins’ record haul of 11 national championships.

“My goal is to win it all,” Cronin said, “so this year is a step in that direction, a process in building, so that’s what I’m here for.”

Including two appearances with Murray State in which he lost in the first round, Cronin’s NCAA tournament record is 6-11. In his 16 seasons in which a tournament has been held, Cronin’s deepest run was a foray to a regional semifinal with Cincinnati in 2012.

Third-seeded UCLA will open the 2021 NCAA women’s basketball tournament against No. 14 Wyoming on March 22.

Before anyone attaches four scarlet letters to Cronin’s name, hanging a metaphorical “NCAA” around his neck, some context might be in order.

Sometimes it takes a while for even the best coaches to reach their intended destination. Few needed 18 seasons to reach his first Final Four. Virginia’s Tony Bennett won his first title in his 10th season at Virginia and his 13th as a Division I head coach.

And even UCLA’s John Wooden, the benchmark for college basketball greatness, needed 16 years with the Bruins and 18 as a head coach to win his first title.

Cronin has called the NCAA tournament a crapshoot, noting that if it was replayed it could result in a completely different Final Four. He hates that a team’s season can be defined by what it does in one game on a neutral court.

But he also understands that this is part of what makes it all so intoxicating for observers and participants alike.

“That’s why they call it madness because it’s not March sanity,” Cronin said. “I love it and I’m here to chase it.”


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