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Column: Mick Cronin’s Westwood spell is transforming Bruins into NCAA bluebloods

UCLA coach Mick Cronin jokes with players in the final moments of their 67-47 win over Abilene Christian.
UCLA coach Mick Cronin jokes with players in the final moments of their 67-47 win over Abilene Christian in the second round of the NCAA tournament on Monday.
(Mark Humphrey / Associated Press)

This Wizard isn’t calm.

He paces in front of the bench with his blue mask down on his chin, pointing and screaming.

Sometimes, he looks as if he’s punching an invisible man only he can see.

And in a timeout with about eight minutes remaining in UCLA’s game on Monday, Mick Cronin delivered a message to his players with such intensity that TBS announcers felt compelled to mention it.

“He was telling us it’s not over,” junior forward Cody Riley recalled.

What prompted Cronin’s high-volume address? Abilene Christian had reduced UCLA’s lead to 17.

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The UCLA Bruins are headed to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2017 after a 67-47 win over Abilene Christian in the NCAA tournament second round of March Madness.

No detail is too small and no shift in momentum is too insignificant for the second-year coach, which is why the Bruins are headed back to the Sweet 16 after a 67-47 victory over the Wildcats.

UCLA is only four years removed from the last time it played into the NCAA tournament’s second weekend, but it feels much longer than that because of the depths to which the program sunk under Steve Alford.

While Alford reached the Sweet 16 in three of his first four seasons in Westwood, his teams were never as endearing as the current squad.

These Bruins don’t commit the kinds of acts of self-sabotage for which Alford’s teams were known. Rather than frustrate spectators with their lack of structure and discipline, they inspire with their smarts and cohesion.

They have become the embodiment of their fiery but affable sideline sorcerer, who has miraculously changed their culture and made them only the fifth First Four team to ever advance to a regional semifinal.

“They’ve shown a lot of character,” Cronin said. “They’re really easy to coach right now.”

The 11th-seeded Bruins don’t leave their alumni wondering how much better they could be. They’re not a team that would lose to a school like Liberty — or Abilene Christian.

Highlights from UCLA’s 67-47 win over Abilene Christian in the second round of the NCAA tournament on Monday.

They did to the 14th-seeded Wildcats what a big-time program should do against a mid-major, creating separation with an 18-0 run in the first half and never letting them close the distance.

UCLA had every advantage — in size, in athleticism, in skill.

Abilene Christian’s only chance was to create havoc with the same swarming defense that forced 23 turnovers in a first-round upset of No. 3 seed Texas.

The Bruins didn’t turn over the ball for the first eight minutes. They committed only three turnovers in the entire first half.

They outrebounded the small Wildcats. They played solid defense.

Considering how they didn’t always do that before Cronin became their coach, the most remarkable aspect of their performance was how unspectacular it was.

Johnny Juzang, the lone sure-fire future NBA player on the team, was only two for seven shooting in the first half and finished with 17 points. Didn’t matter. The Bruins didn’t have to rely on a spectacular individual effort to advance. The fundamentals sufficed.

Cronin is Ben Howland with a better personality, a Midwestern family man who was cheered on in the stands by his father, daughter and also-hairless brother.

Chances are you’ve heard Ryan Gesas if you’ve been watching UCLA’s March Madness run. Here’s how he ended up in a crazy video with Martin Jarmond.

Transforming a program in two seasons would be a significant achievement under any conditions, but Cronin did it over two seasons that were disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

UCLA’s entire postseason was wiped out last year, meaning the young team lost an opportunity to gain experience in the Pac-12 and NCAA tournaments. With their campus closed, the Bruins couldn’t practice from March through September.

“We did not see our players for six months,” Cronin said, pointing to how many teams on the East Coast and in the South staged summer workouts while the Bruins were temporarily disbanded. “My biggest fear was [in] six months, we’re going to be starting over.”

But the players have bought into his philosophy of learning how to do what he calls the “hard, uncomfortable things.” They also learned by experience, with Cronin remarking how a four-game losing streak entering the NCAA tournament was beneficial.

“I think what they have learned is one or two mistakes can beat you,” Cronin said.

The spell that Cronin has cast on the Bruins has them believing that they didn’t sneak into the VIP section of the Big Dance, but that they really belong there. Next weekend, he will be shouting and gesturing on the sidelines again, trying once more to conjure a blue-collared version of magic that has rejuvenated a blue-blood program.


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