In case you missed it, Pac-12 Basketball Media Day was Tuesday. It’s kind of appropriate that this post is so late because, right now, the UCLA Bruins are an afterthought in the Pac-12. UCLA was picked eighth in the Pac-12 media poll, which is technically worse than last year’s seventh place finish. Of course, last year UCLA was ranked #21 and picked second at Pac-12 Media Day.
I have one prediction as well as a quick thought. UCLA will finish better than eighth and it is a whole new world with Mick Cronin as coach. Three quick thoughts on that difference that show already.
1. The Obvious: Defense is Now a Priority
The real insight happened in the Pac-12 Network interview which doesn’t appear to be available online. Suffice it to say that Don MacLean is excited that Mick Cronin believes in defense and defense is a team game. Cronin’s Rule number one is “No uncontested layups.” I am not dwelling on this one because everyone knows it and expect it from Cronin.
Here’s Cronin’s official media day interview:
2. There is no “I” in Team
Think about UCLA basketball during the Howland and, especially, the Alford years, it was about stars. At Media Day, it mentions UCLA as “NBAU.” This year is about the team. The cynic will say that is by necessity, as this team has no clear “star.” But the reality is the focus right now is completely different.
Media Day was a great example of this. Cronin took redshirt seniors Alex Olesinski and Prince Ali. He took the most experienced guys, not the potential stars. Compare this to Steve Alford who took sophomores Jaylen Hands and Kris Wilkes last year and sophomore Kyle Anderson in his first year. When Alford took a senior he was generally the best player(s) like Norman Powell.
But that is not the only example. In his last year, Ben Howland talked about UCLA as a preparatory school for the pros and bragged how he trained players to have the skills they need for the NBA. In contrast Cronin said (emphasis mine):
I would love for us to -- I would love for all recruits to believe that they’re going to be an NBA player if they come to UCLA. . .But I think at the same time you want to be synonymous with winning. That’s important. Not just a stopover on the way to professional basketball. You want to try to leave a mark. . . So I think the type of guys you’re going to get are people that do expect to be at the highest level of college basketball or they wouldn’t come to Westwood. You obviously want to continue to be -- I think we were tied last year with somebody else with the most players in the NBA on the roster last year, so we’d love to continue that and make sure that we continue to develop pros. That’s important. That helps winning. The more future NBA players you have, the more you’re going to win.
3. He Gets UCLA
One of the worst parts of Alford’s first season is how he talked about Bobby Knight as if he was coaching at Indiana or some place that had never won a championship. And it was not just the bad coaches like Alford, Larry Brown famously changed UCLA Uniforms to North Carolina blue and really had no patience or interest in UCLA’s history or culture. Cronin has been saying the right things and doing the right things. While this quote could also go under number 2, it is still a nice touch. Ben Bolch of the LA Times writes:
Cronin sent a message when he replaced massive photos of current players that hung over the baskets inside the Mo Ostin Center with pyramid-shaped images of every UCLA player selected in the first round of the NBA draft.
He has had MacLean in to talk and has Bill Walton’s support. (I know some are rolling their eyes on the mention of Walton). In his Media Day interview, he explained why he left his longtime home in Cincinnati for UCLA:
Well, first of all, the time -- there’s never a good time to leave. . . . But hey, professionally if you’re going to make a move, you get a chance to sit in the chair that John Wooden once sat in, and it’s an unbelievable opportunity. Our tradition and our history, ex-Bruins or however you want to say it, former Bruin players are second to none. Not many people have the collection of guys that played at their school that we have, whether it’s guys -- the 15 guys now I believe in the NBA on the roster last year or all the guys in the Hall of Fame. I think we had nine Hall-of-Famers. I mean, it’s crazy when you really think about it.
UCLA is special. Welcome, Coach Cronin. I think the writers have it wrong. You’ll lead this starless team to better than eighth place and, more importantly, you’ll make UCLA fans feel good about their basketball team again.