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Commentary: Mick Cronin is leading UCLA’s return to national prominence

Wooden-Cronin cartoon
(Jim Thompson / For The Times)

It should be noted that, on the weekend we celebrate a resurrection, UCLA’s basketball program was doing the same thing.

Often in sports, it is not the result that matters as much as the circumstances of that result. When Gonzaga, unbeaten and heavily favored, tossed in a 40-foot shot in the last tick of overtime to beat and shock the Bruins, there was victory in that defeat. It meant that the Bruins were just as good as the top college basketball team in the country. They were just less fortunate.

One can only imagine John Wooden, sitting on a bench somewhere in heaven, rolled-up game program in his hand, nodding and mumbling, “OK, maybe we can get back to where we were.”

You can bet that Jim Harrick watched and rooted. When he coached the Bruins to their 11th NCAA title in 1995, to add to Wooden’s 10, there was revival-to-the-Wooden-years talk. Harrick has gone on to coach several other places, but you can bet that some of the blood that runs through him is still tinged Bruin blue.

In one of the best games in NCAA Final Four history, UCLA did not deserve to lose on one of the most unlikely final shots in tournament history.

When Ben Howland came from Pittsburgh in 2003, with a Southern California background and a success story in the rugged eastern basketball ranks, he paid frequent homage to the basketball stature Wooden had created at UCLA. Wooden created, and continues to leave, a basketball-excellence legacy that Howland believed in and used beautifully to build it back. He took the Bruins to three consecutive Final Fours, lost in the title game to Florida one of those years and had just won a Pac-10 regular-season title in 2013 when he was fired in an all-time head-scratcher.

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So that revival of Wooden excellence ended, perhaps at the precipice of success.

Howland now coaches at Mississippi State. Certainly, like Harrick, when the UCLA-Gonzaga game was being played, Howland was watching and pondering what might have been, while feeling good about each Bruin basket.

So now it falls to Mick Cronin to take a run at it, and from what we saw Saturday, he is clearly up to the task. But this is so much of a different era than the Wooden days. No reasonable Bruins basketball fan — and there have been reports that some do exist — expects 10 more NCAA titles. Even the most radical Bruins backer would likely see some Wooden excellence in one or two. OK, two or three.

But Cronin coaches in this age of “look-at-me” sports. The team? What team? How many points did I get? All of this, of course, is bolstered by the one-and-done rule (you can turn pro after a year in college).

During Mick Cronin’s two years as UCLA coach, there have been clutch late baskets for and against the Bruins. Here’s a look at all of them.

An example: How different might Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, perhaps the greatest Bruins star ever, been today had he been able to take the money and run after his freshman year? Instead, he stayed, played, went to school, graduated (yes, college basketball players are still allowed to do that), and went on to a Hall of Fame NBA career. He is now one of the country’s most articulate spokesmen and celebrated authors. Juxtapose that with, for example, what happens at places such as Kentucky, where you can get 500-1 odds in Vegas that no top-line basketball player will become a sophomore, much less a graduate.

Cronin’s roster includes one senior and five sophomores, including star player Johnny Juzang. Pray for the coach.

Cronin is also coaching in the age of social media. You could wager that at least one “fan” opined through his typing fingers that UCLA should have defended the winning shot better. Wouldn’t the best defense of a nearly half-court shot be to stay fairly clear of the ball-flinger, thereby playing the best odds on a 40-foot shot and making sure a nearby referee doesn’t take the moment to exhale into his whistle?

Cronin coached a beauty. The entire season. All credit to him.

The Final Four thriller between UCLA and Gonzaga belongs in the conversation for the best college basketball game of all time.

Now the big job begins — convincing players, families, fellow administrators and coaches, everybody involved — that what was taken from them on a fluke shot is worth staying around to rectify. He will need to be part cheerleader, part psychologist, part father-figure and part policeman. It is a long way until March Madness 2022. One China shoplifting incident can ruin it all. So can one big-baller dad.

The tug of NBA fame and fortune is understandable. So, too, should be the tug of an education and the college experience. But money always seems to out-tug common sense and long-term logic. Few NBA careers last 10 years. Few 35-year-olds get hired into six-figure jobs without college degrees.

Even before Cronin, UCLA basketball certainly wasn’t dead. But Saturday’s exciting and dramatic near-miss signals a real rising.


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