As Mick Cronin and I sat in his nearly barren office in UCLA’s vaunted J.D. Morgan Center last August, unopened boxes strewn about, neither of us knew where UCLA would be in March.
Neither of us knew that Cronin would kick off the Bruins’ rebuild a year ahead of schedule, or that he’d be named Pac-12 Coach of the Year for it. Neither of us knew that UCLA would lose games to Hofstra and Cal State Fullerton, nor that the Bruins would turn it around so soon, reeling off a seven-game Pac-12 winning streak that finally brought some joy back to Pauley Pavilion.
What Cronin knew — and I didn’t — was that this season was not about winning basketball games. It was about instilling a winning culture.
Stop me if you’ve heard this before: A hard-nosed college basketball coach from Ohio, known more for his defensive prowess and his ability to coax every last ounce of energy from his players, heads to the Pac-12 and almost instantly resuscitates a moribund brand.
First it was Sean Miller. A decade later, it’s Cronin — whose Bruins play in Thursday’s Pac-12 quarterfinals in Las Vegas.
The coaches’ Pac-10/12 debuts were eerily similar.
On Jan. 14, 2010, the Arizona men’s basketball team lost 67-64 to Oregon State, falling to 8-9 in Pac-12 play.
On Jan. 15. 2020, the UCLA men’s basketball team lost 74-59 to Washington State, falling to 8-9 in Pac-12 play.
A decade ago, the Wildcats won eight of their final 13 Pac-10 games to finish 10-8 in conference play. That set the stage for Miller’s 30-8 sophomore campaign and a run to the Elite Eight.
This year, the Bruins went 11-3 after their woeful start, finishing the regular season at 19-12 with a 12-6 Pac-12 record and a No. 2 seed in the conference tournament.
Where will UCLA end up next year? That’s a secondary concern. Even this year’s results are, too.
“The word is culture,” Cronin said in our sit-down before the season. “To me, you have to guard your culture all the time. You can change from man (defense) to zone like Oregon did last year, but your culture — you can’t go and build culture in the middle of the season. Your culture is built from Day 1.”
Maybe that explains UCLA’s midseason surge.
It’s not just that the Bruins were losing early this season. Even in wins, it was ugly. A four-point season-opening win over Long Beach State. A 14-point loss to mediocre Notre Dame, followed by a 10-point loss to the worst North Carolina team in nearly two decades, followed by a loss to Fullerton that ended the nonconference schedule on a sour note.
For the first five weeks of the conference season, it was more of the same: A 5-5 league start that included three straight losses to Washington State, USC and Stanford — not exactly the murderer’s row of the Pac-12 – followed by a 4-1 surge that included wins over Cal, Oregon State, Colorado and Utah, and an 18-point loss at Arizona State on Feb. 6.
Then came the Bruins’ 65-52 upset of the Wildcats in Tucson on Feb. 8 — a game that started a seven-game winning streak.
It was, for Cronin, the culmination of his message coming across.
“This is a lot of new stuff for them — not just what I’m teaching them, but the way we practice,” he said earlier this year. “And not just what we’re practicing. The X’s and O’s are different for them, and I’m sure I’m different for them, but I don’t think you can develop without adversity.
“‘Kumbaya’ gets you beat. As a coach, you have to prepare your guys by putting them under the fire. Easy practice equals easy loss.”
What Cronin seemed to know in that conversation was that nothing would come easy for UCLA this season, and it hasn’t.
The Bruins’ most high-profile player — Shareef O’Neal, Shaq’s son — transferred midway through the year after failing to crack Cronin’s rotation. The team’s highest returning scorer from a year ago, Prince Ali, averages just 6.8 points per game. Other than Pac-12 Most Improved Player Chris Smith, who averages 13.1 points per game, no UCLA player averages double figures in points.
“The goal is only to win the game,” UCLA freshman guard Jaime Jaquez Jr. said earlier this year. “Whether one guy has 50 and everyone else has zero or everyone has 10, whoever scores scores. If someone has a good night, good for them. We win, everyone looks good.”
On the eve of the season, Cronin had heard as much.
“We’ve had some great coaches visit practice, and I had one coach who loved our frontcourt. He’s in the hall of fame,” Cronin said then. “I had another coach visit, one of the best I’ve ever met, he thought our wing play was tremendous. As Don MacLean put it to me, some guys are men’s gym All-Americans. Until the popcorn is popping, you don’t really know.”
That was then.
This — a 19-12 record after an 8-9 start, conference coach-of-the-year honors — is now.
Where will the Bruins go from here? Could they soar like Miller’s Wildcats did?
One part of our conversation makes me think they will.
“As I told the guys the other day, we weren’t practicing with the intensity we needed, and then it got great,” Cronin said before the season started. “At the end, I stopped them. Why would I have to do that? When you’re gone from here and there’s no one to motivate you every day, what’s going to happen? They don’t motivate people in the pros. They don’t motivate you in Europe. Or at Bob Smith BMW. You sell cars or you get fired.
“You have to constantly make the thing about the big picture. Nobody is going to be there to wake you up when you’re 23, going to tell you to get your ass dressed and go to work. I didn’t play in the Final Four, I wasn’t a lottery pick, I’m not 6-foot-3. I’m used to earning everything I’ve gotten.”
Sounds a little like Miller, no?
Jon Gold is a freelancer based in both New York and Los Angeles. He can be reached at email@example.com.