It’s Thanksgiving and a few UCLA basketball fans are already gnashing their teeth and saying that they are done with Cronin. Others are declaring the star of a given game the next great Bruin. After the exhibition game, it was Tyger Campbell, then it was Chris Smith living up to his potential and then it was Jalen Hill looking like Sidney Wicks against Hofstra.
What is really going on? The team and players are getting better, but growth does not happen in a straight line. It is a roller coaster. And that’s what this year is to me, a roller coaster ride. Some people don’t like roller coasters, but I do because of the thing that has been constant this year: effort. “We don’t negotiate effort” would be high on a Cronin pyramid. It’s fun to see a team going all out again. Yes, I miss the beauty of a Lonzo Ball pass, the understated defensive perfection of Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, the seemingly unstoppable Kareem sky hook, etc. But this is different. It is knowing there are 11 guys who have one thing in common: they are going to dive for the loose ball.
UCLA is going to have trouble scoring, but they are not going to be out-hustled or out-scrapped. Look, Kareem told the story of how he never set a screen until late in his pro career and you never saw Kareem dive. Now, Kareem was the greatest college player of all time and you didn’t want him diving. But that is part of the fun of this team. No one is worthy of being on the floor at 80% of their capabilities or really that far above anyone else.
Is this as fun as winning or watching a fast break or a sky hook? Of course not. But this is better than the pain of the last few seasons watching players play selfish and not pay a price because they were related to the coach or a “star.”
There is certain “must-watch” feeling because you never know who is going to lead us tonight. I mean, who had Jaime Jaquez Jr. pegged as the leading rebounder and scorer in our last win? I have watched almost every game the last three years and I am not sure I can say I saw a scenario where Chris Smith was the leading scorer eight games in and Jalen Hill was second.
Yes, this team has flaws and I have some questions about Cronin’s rotation involving say David Singleton. But it was fun to watch a team that had not given up against a better Michigan State team with a senior college superstar point guard even after that star hit some dagger three-pointers. I remember when the Bruins did give up in previous years against this same team. I like that in this team and coach.
So, I am pulling for Jalen Hill to have more Hofstra games where he dominates inside. I still remember his first game last season when the other team left him open in the paint daring him to shoot and he still passed the ball out. I am blown away by Chris Smith, who was a 59% free throw shooter his freshman year currently shooting 93% from the line.
This is not a great UCLA team. Shoot, it’s not even a good one. But it is one deserving of UCLA fans’ support because it is working toward coming close to its potential. Wooden said the team that came closest to fulfilling its potential was the 1959-60 Bruins. Don’t remember that one? Well, no one does. The entire UCLA program had been penalized for the sins of the football team. From a Bruins Nation post on that team quoting John Wooden:
Therefore when I reflected on the 1959-1960 season with its 14-12 record and the sizable obstacles we faced, I was of the opinion that our team might have gotten my best coaching up to that point in my career. And nobody knew it but me. That was fine.
I also believe those student-athletes under my leadership came as close to reaching 100 percent of their potential as some of the later UCLA teams with perfect 30-0 seasons. The 1959-1960 group just didn’t have the extreme level of talent that championship teams possessed. However, I do not judge success based on championships; rather, I judge it on how close we we came to realizing our potential.
Consequently, in looking back at all 27 years I coached the Bruins, I wouldn’t put another season ahead of 1959-1960 for what we achieved in that regard. I have great pride in what we accomplished that season.
If Cronin is a success, this will be his 1959-60 team. Thanks, guys for playing hard. Thanks, Coach Cronin.
Happy Thanksgiving. Go Bruins!