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Best choice, not first choice: How Mick Cronin has revived UCLA hoops

Jeff Eisenberg
·6-min read

In spring 2019, UCLA wanted to make a splashy hire.

The Bruins felt they needed a high-profile coach to reinvigorate a program that had declined in relevance over the previous decade.

They put together a massive offer to try to lure John Calipari. He shrewdly used it as leverage to negotiate a lifetime deal with Kentucky.

They pursued Tony Bennett in case he wanted a fresh start. He passed and then led Virginia to a redemptive national title.

They pivoted to Jamie Dixon. TCU refused to lower his $8 million buyout.

They moved on to Rick Barnes. He renegotiated a more lucrative deal at Tennessee.

Only after all that did UCLA at last turn to a fiery, defensive-minded coach who had taken Cincinnati to nine straight NCAA tournaments. Ever since, Mick Cronin has done everything possible to prove you don’t have to be the first choice to be the best choice.

While Calipari and Dixon failed to reach the postseason this year and Bennett and Barnes did not win a single NCAA tournament game, Cronin’s UCLA team improbably is one victory away from the Final Four. The 11th-seeded Bruins embodied the mental toughness of their coach on Sunday night, enduring the heartbreak of a game-tying 3-pointer to end regulation yet still finishing off an 88-78 overtime upset of second-seeded Alabama.

INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA - MARCH 28:Head coach Mick Cronin of the UCLA Bruins reacts against the Alabama Crimson Tide during the second half in the Sweet Sixteen round game of the 2021 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Hinkle Fieldhouse on March 28, 2021 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA - MARCH 28:Head coach Mick Cronin of the UCLA Bruins reacts against the Alabama Crimson Tide during the second half in the Sweet Sixteen round game of the 2021 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Hinkle Fieldhouse on March 28, 2021 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Ahead by three with less than five seconds remaining in regulation, UCLA paid dearly for Cronin going against his instincts to foul intentionally. The Bruins instead doubled the ball handler but missed a key rotation, enabling backup forward Alex Reese to snag a Jahvon Quinerly pass and bury a 26-footer to force overtime.

That gut punch would have waylaid a lesser team. UCLA barely flinched.

“We knew we had another five minutes to win the game,” forward Jaime Jaquez explained.

David Singleton opened overtime with a huge 3-pointer. Tyger Campbell turned a turnover into a transition layup to extend the lead to five. Jaquez later sank a heavily contested 3-pointer after Alabama had closed to within four. Before you knew it, UCLA had vanquished a Crimson Tide team that swept the SEC regular season and tournament titles and had an edge in athleticism at every position Sunday night.

“These guys have been resilient all year,” Cronin said. “There are many times we could have packed it in, but I told them they’ve been putting up with me for two years now trying to beat into them competitive spirit and toughness. When you combine that with talent, you have a chance to do great things.”

That was UCLA’s formula during its run of three straight Final Fours from 2006-2008, but the Bruins stayed from that during the latter half of Ben Howland’s tenure. Then they further lost their way under Steve Alford, who produced one outstanding season with Lonzo Ball and five other erratic ones in which the Bruins failed to ever crack the top 16 in the AP poll.

When Cronin accepted the job, he inherited a roster accustomed to coaches who prioritized skill and scoring but treated defense as an afterthought. Recognizing that UCLA’s returning players were in for a culture shock, Cronin warned them, “This is not going to be easy.”

“I give the kids credit because, look, there's already a thousand people in the transfer portal,” Cronin said Sunday. “So it's easy to cut bait and run. It's hard to dig in and deal with a short Irishman telling you to get in a defensive stance. I'm very thankful that the guys all hung in there and helped me build this.”

The shock of going from Alford to Cronin was a major reason UCLA lost to Hofstra and Cal State Fullerton early in Cronin’s debut season. But the Bruins learned to embrace Cronin’s emphasis on effort and discipline and roared back to life, winning 11 of their final 14 games to position themselves to reach the NCAA tournament before the pandemic hit.

This year’s team has built on that momentum despite Cronin losing his top incoming freshman (Daishen Nix) to the G League, his leading returning scorer (Chris Smith) to a knee injury and his most athletic big man (Jalen Hill) to a leave of absence for personal reasons. UCLA contended for the Pac-12 title for most of the season, but the NCAA tournament selection committee deemed the Bruins a First Four team after they closed with an ill-timed four-game losing streak.

In its First Four matchup with Michigan State at Purdue's Mackey Arena, UCLA fell behind by 14 and seemed destined for a brief NCAA tournament stay. The Bruins instead withstood that punch and responded with a flurry of counterpunches of their own, a confidence-inspiring show of resilience that Cronin cites as a turning point.

"We were down 14 in West Lafayette," Cronin said. "It's cold, we're all from southern California. Even me now, I hate the cold weather. My blood is thin. And these guys just refused to give in."

Since that confidence-restoring outcome, UCLA has vanquished BYU, outclassed Abilene Christian and stunned Alabama to set up a high-stakes matchup with top-seeded Michigan on Tuesday night. It's a run that is only possible because of the number of players that have improved under the tutelage of Cronin and his staff.

Johnny Juzang has evolved from a bit player at Kentucky to one of the stars of the NCAA tournament. Tyger Campbell has learned to be more aggressive looking for his own shot. Jules Bernard has doubled his scoring output while also increasing his field goal and 3-point percentages. And the roster as a whole has taken on Cronin’s never-say-die spirit.

“That was kind of his whole attitude coming to UCLA,” Jaquez said. “No matter what happens, we're going to be the toughest team out there.”

UCLA's Elite Eight run has been particularly encouraging because it feels like a starting point, not a culmination. Not only do the Bruins have no seniors in their current rotation, they're also set to welcome a decorated recruiting class to the fold next season.

Even so, Cronin is taking nothing for granted.

Late in Cronin’s news conference, he fielded a question about reaching the Elite Eight for the first time as a head coach. Rather than celebrate the milestone, he demonstrated that he understands Elite Eights are not the standard at a program with UCLA’s pedigree.

“That's not why I came to UCLA,” Cronin said.

“For me, we’ve got to win three more games. … Right now, I can't wait to get back and start watching Michigan because I understand how great of a team they have. I'm well aware of how fragile this tournament is, and an opportunity doesn't always knock at your door.”

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