It is funny to read post game comments and stories from the UCLA Bruins’ 77-61 win over the UC Santa Barbara Gauchos in context of all the stories so far this season. It seems everyone wants to anoint a player as the new star of the team and the key to the season. No way is this more obvious than what is missing from all the stories and all the comments on the game, Tyger Campbell. Tyger was the MVP, the key to the season, the best player after an exhibition victory and win over Long Beach State. He is unmentioned today and was a non-factor last night. That’s because the key to the win last night on this “starless” team was someone else, Mick Cronin.
Cronin’s halftime speech changed the game. After the game, Cronin discussed what he said to the team:
We had a spirited halftime talk and guys rose to the challenge. Sometimes, you do that stuff as coaches and nothing changes. I believe that you have to play extremely hard. I thought that we let Santa Barbara get comfortable, you should not let teams get into your gym and get comfortable. We didn’t try and take anything away from them in the first half. That’s an effort thing. I challenged our guys to come with the effort that I’m accustomed to.
In other words, he called them out for not playing hard. To translate it into Cronin’s philosophy: “We don’t negotiate effort.”
Arguably, the most-”Alford-player,” fifth-year senior, Prince Ali was the one who led the way. The Daily Bruin’s Sam Connon reported:
UCLA men’s basketball (2-0) defeated UC Santa Barbara (1-1) 77-61, outscoring its opponent by 18 in the second half after heading into the locker room down 34-32. There were eight lead changes in the first half, but only one in the second – redshirt senior guard Prince Ali picked up a steal and scored four points in a row to open the frame and give the Bruins a lead they would hold onto for the remainder of the night.
“I thought (Ali) came out and changed the game with his effort coming out of the locker room,” said coach Mick Cronin.
Ali’s four points early in the half were the start of a comeback Cronin said the Bruins desperately needed after coming out flat in the first.
Even though the first half was not the effort that Cronin wanted on defense, it’s offense that helped set up the second half, fouling out both of UCSB’s quality bigs. UCLA was not going to shoot the ball from outside, but was determined to pound it inside. Coach Cronin explained:
Chris Smith in transition does a good job getting to the rim. We’re still learning when to drive and when to drive-and-pass. We only took four threes in the second half out of 32 shots, so we got the ball at the rim. Offensive rebounding we were plus-15. It’s hard to rebound when you’re just passing around, shooting jumpshots. We were trying to really break down their defense, get fouls on them because they’re not the deepest team at the guard position.
Jalen Hill was the beneficiary. The Orange County Register’s James Williams writes:
Hill led UCLA with a game-high 22 points and 10 rebounds. The Bruins have won two straight games against Big West Conference opponents to open the season.
Hill credited his work ethic and a conversation with Coach Mick Cronin for his performance Sunday night. . . .
Cronin believes Hill’s performance is a product of effort and what the 6-foot-10 center has done during the offseason.
“We got the ball at the basket, which helped him, but his effort was off the charts on the rebounding,” Cronin said. “If he goes every time, he’s a problem because he’s so big. He and (athletic performance coach) Wes Long have done such a good job with his body since I got here in April.”
So, we saw the Cronin “effort” factor come into play and we saw the Cronin offense clicking in the second half. Going into the season, we knew Cronin was a great defensive coach and we saw that as well in the second half. Ben Bolch of the LA Times writes:
His team’s two-point halftime deficit wasn’t what made him boil in the locker room. Mick Cronin was a human inferno because his players had generated just five deflections on defense.
Deflections are the lifeblood of any Cronin team, signifying the defensive effort that he demands through passes that are tipped, shots that are blocked and loose balls that are grabbed.
Cronin wants his teams to generate 40 deflections on any given night, and halfway through UCLA’s game against UC Santa Barbara on Sunday at Pauley Pavilion, the Bruins had tallied a measly one-eighth of that total. It wasn’t nearly good enough for a coach who had seen his players assert themselves with greater intensity in practice. . . .
UCLA generated 17 deflections in the second half and 22 for the game -- a touch over half the number that Cronin wants. But their strong effort to close the game prompted Pasternack to label the Bruins an NCAA tournament team, and even Cronin had softened considerably after watching his players show signs of early growth.
Coach Cronin gets the last word on the “best” player last night. Unlike everything else about last night, I don’t agree with this but appreciate him saying it. It is fun to watch a team without stars play hard and win.
Coaching is overrated. You’ve got to coach guys at practice, be a psychologist to get guys to be at their best. Real coaching is knowing what a guy is capable of, demanding that, and getting it out of them. Sometimes as a coach you feel like you didn’t do that in a guy’s career. Jalen and I have had a lot of talks about the things that backups do and the things that starters do, and being able to be better and focused and responsible throughout an entire game – it’s a new thing for him. Then his athleticism and the size becomes a factor if he can do that. We got the ball at the basket, which helps him, but his performance was off the charts.
Thank you, Coach Cronin. It may not always be pretty, but it feels good watching UCLA basketball again.