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How to “Fix” UCLA’s Basketball Woes, Part 1

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In the first of two parts, DCBruins looks at what other UCLA coaches might do with this team.

Jim Harrick Posing with Basketball
So far, Coach Cronin has the opposite of Jim Harrick’s substitution pattern
Getty Images

It saddens me to read that some UCLA basketball fans have given up on Coach Mick Cronin already. On other hand, some concern is justified watching the offense at times. So, I started to think about what other UCLA coaches would do with this team? Or, better put, how could some of their successful techniques be applied to this team.

This is a very imperfect summary. Also, there is so much more to all these coaches than the one item I am going to point out here for each coach. I did not select every coach, but rather recent ones and/or successful ones.

Steve Alford Style: Player Leader

Steve Alford’s best UCLA teams had a clear best player who did it all. Kyle Anderson won the Pac-12 tournament while leading UCLA on offense and rebounding. Alford told Lonzo Ball to take over and he changed the culture of the offense to make the extra pass while also covering the other team’s best guard or small forward. UCLA was ranked in the Top 5. Norman Powell was clearly the best defender and offensive player who gave an inspiring speech that turned UCLA’s season around and led to a surprising Sweet 16 run. In years where there was not a clear leader, the team floundered like last year when Kris Wilkes did not like to play defense or when there was no clear cut leader like in 2015-16 and a losing record resulted.

How Cronin is like and unlike Alford: Jaime Jaquez Jr. is emerging as the best player. He is good at everything, despite only recently becoming a starter. He is third in rebounds, second in steals, and third in field goal percentage. He also hustles and is a good Cronin player, but he is a freshman and an unknown quality. This is more a team that does not have a clear star like Kyle Anderson or Lonzo Ball. Shoot! The leading scorer Chris Smith doesn’t even start. Cronin is also unlike Alford in that he inherited a veteran team with a clear leader in Kyle Anderson. Nothing positive Alford did will work for Cronin.

Ben Howland Style: Establish a New Culture and Throw Away the First Season

Those of you who are new fans may not remember how ugly it was to watch Ben Howland’s first season. I remember thinking that we weren’t even trying to win. After every shot it seemed five guys would run back on defense. Heck, it seemed like they were running back before the shot was even taken.

And that 11-17 team had talent. Trevor Ariza is still playing in the NBA and was the 18th ranked high school player in the country. TJ Cummings was a returning all-freshman Pac-10 player. Ryan Hollins, although very raw, went on to have a long NBA career. Dijon Thompson was good enough of a player to score 39 in the Pac-10 and was a second round draft pick.

I really think that team underachieved. Howland clearly did not care about his win-loss record that season. He wanted to establish a culture of defense. He was teaching basketball to a group of players who had never been coached before.

And, for the long term, it worked out pretty well. Two seasons later, UCLA was the runner up.

How Cronin is like and unlike Howland: Cronin is changing the culture and it already shows. Every player on the team dives for loose balls. The team is now trying on defense. However, he is unlike Howland in that he is trying to win every game this year. Outmatched against Kansas, he slowed the game down to keep it close and, hopefully, pull off the miracle win. With a week to prepare against Notre Dame, he is installed a matchup zone. So far, those efforts are not paying off.

Jim Harrick Style: The Harrick Funnel

As the season progressed under a Jim Harrick coached team, the bench became shorter and shorter. Harrick would start the season playing, say, ten players, but by the end of the season he would have a rotation of eight and often that eighth player would not play in the second half. He was not a believer in a deep bench. In the championship game when Tyus Edney got hurt, UCLA effectively played with a six-man team with JR Henderson serving as the entire bench and Cameron Dollar filling in for Edney.

To be clear this was something Coach Wooden did as well except the ninth man received even less playing time. According to Wooden, the only thing he changed from the good years to the great years is he started practicing the top 7 or 8 players together. The eighth or ninth man on a Wooden team was not a lot different from a walk-on when it came to meaningful playing time.

How Cronin is like and unlike Harrick: Cronin has not shortened his bench in the slightest yet. Shareef O’Neal has arguably been added to the rotation and, despite being 11th in scoring, Alex Olesinski has played in all 12 games. Honestly, there is not much in common here.

It will be interesting if Cronin shortens his bench. Jake Kyman seems likely to completely drop out of the rotation, but will the other 10 still receive meaningful minutes? Right now, the answer seems to yes.

Larry Brown Style: Experience? I Don’t Need Experience

College basketball was a different game when Larry Brown coached UCLA. Players usually stayed and a freshman declaring for the draft was unheard of. Yet, he made a run with a freshman backcourt, which was unthinkable at the time. The Bruins were runners up with two freshman guards starting.

How Cronin is like and unlike Brown: Nothing in common here either. There seems to be a good argument for benching, say, Prince Ali and turning to others, either Jules Bernard or David Singleton.

John Wooden Style: The First Championships and the Press

Wooden’s first and especially his second championship were not overly talented teams. They relied on a full court press to speed the game up. It tired the other team and created offense. A fascinating article from Sports Illustrated with a few excerpts from December 6, 1965, entitled A Press That Panics Them All, describes it well:

Soft-spoken, genteel Coach John Wooden has, first, installed his zone as UCLA’s basic style; it is not just a sometime tactic when all else fails. In addition, it is thoroughly integrated with the UCLA offense, so much so that it is hard to say where defense stops and offense begins.

What makes the zone so intriguing is that it does not take a big man like a Russell or a superstar like a Robertson to make it work. The UCLA teams of the last two years were of average size and, though Walt Hazzard and Gail Goodrich are fine players, neither one is a Cousy, a Bradley or a West. Both teams, however, were made up of well-conditioned athletes, dedicated to a demanding philosophy of play through superb coaching.

The article is lengthy and goes into all the details of the press. How Wooden taught it and quotes coaches from around the country on how to combat it. I have to add the closing quote from Wooden just because it is so classic, even though it is not totally relevant to this post:

Every coach in the country has an opinion, all the way from Frank McGuire’s “Just get better ballplayers” to complicated maneuvers involving overloads and split-second screens. It is all music to John Wooden. “As long as so many coaches feel there are so many ways to beat the zone press,” he says, “that means no one is really sure. It is evidence that the press is hard to beat.”

How Cronin is like and unlike Wooden: Okay, no one is like Wooden. He was the greatest coach of all time. Let me talk about the Wooden press versus Cronin press.

Personnel. The two players who were on both pressing championship teams are worth discussing. Gail Goodrich was an amazing shooter and skinny kid who was not a great athlete. He was the star of that second team and the leading scorer for both. There is no equivalent to Goodrich on this team. Again, Jaquez would be the closest, but Goodrich was on a different level. The other key was Keith Erickson. Erickson was the last guy in the press. According to Wooden, Erickson was the “finest athlete” he ever coached and was also a member of the U.S. Olympic Volleyball team. I guess Chris Smith would be the closest in that he is big enough to block shots. Smith has a great basketball body, but is not the incredible athlete that Erickson was.

I would also argue that the game is different. Back in 1965, even forwards were not necessarily good ball handlers. Providence’s Joe Mullaney noted at the time in the SI article (emphasis added):

One thing that has contributed to the recent success of pressing defenses, says Providence’s Joe Mullaney, is the lack of good ball handlers in the game today. “A press takes advantage of this lack,” he adds. “Some teams have one, or maybe two, ball handlers, but they must get rid of the ball sometime and eventually the weak men on your team have to touch it. That’s when you’re in trouble. You just can’t bury a couple of bad ball handlers against a zone press.” (One beneficial result of the trend to presses may be a return to thorough grounding in ball-handling fundamentals by coaches.)

Today, power forwards are often good ball handlers. Plus, the ability to hit an open three makes it tougher as it is easier to stop a lay up with a shot blocker than a three. Nowadays, that last man has to cover a lot of ground.

I know many here want this team to press. Cronin has said you need to score to set up the press. Ironically, UCLA’s 12-0 run against North Carolina with the press ended when Jaquez missed two free throws. So, UCLA could not set up the press after the miss.

Maybe, it is something that can be used more, but it seems hard to make it as constant a weapon in 2019-20 as it was over 50 years ago.

Part 2 will be my solution. What do you think other coaches would do with this team? Let us know in the comments and don’t feel the need to limit yourself to UCLA coaches.