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UCLA Basketball: On Acceptable and Unacceptable Losses

Coach Cronin deserves blame for Cal State Fullerton and credit for the Washington road trip.

NCAA Basketball: UCLA at North Carolina Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

The world of blogging and social media is so reactionary. It is an “of the moment” world too often and does not offer much perspective. Some here think I fell prey to that. I was mad, and still am mad, at Coach Cronin for his reaction to the home loss to Cal State Fullerton. He blamed the players generally for a lack of “humility.” Yet, I generally don’t have a problem with his calling out specific players for the loss to Washington State.

No, I am not another blogger swayed by the emotions of the moment. I am not swayed by the season-best win over Washington in-between the two games. One loss was Cronin’s fault and one loss was not. One loss was inexcusable and one was to be expected in a rebuilding season.

Both games have one thing in common. The players played with great effort.

The reason the Fullerton game was lost is because the players did what Cronin told them to for the most part. The Washington State game was lost because the players failed to do what he asked at certain key moments. In my opinion, the Fullerton loss is 100% on Coach Cronin. If you want to blame the Washington State loss on a coach, it would be Coach Alford.

In both cases, Coach Wooden’s quote: “Never mistake activity for achievement” is instructive.

Fullerton had a really simple offensive game plan: penetrate to the free throw area and when UCLA doubles from the nearest perimeter player, kick out to his man for an open, in rhythm three-pointer. By my count, every three-point attempt but one was a wide-open look. This was not a flaw of the players. They were executing Cronin’s defense and Cal State Fullerton’s coach had a better offensive game plan. Also, this was not rocket science as this is what UCLA had been doing for the season to this point. UCLA’s three-point defense was horrid throughout the game and for the season to that point.

It was also not the players’ fault. They were hustling and accomplishing Coach Cronin’s plan. Yet Cronin blamed the players for the loss:

The message is really irrelevant. I’ve given them the same—I didn’t change. I didn’t change when I got here as a coach. It’s not like I forgot how to coach defense. . . .You have humility. I’ve talked about it before and I talked about it over the holiday break. We need to get some humility, is my opinion. Some of its youth, but some of it is arrogance for no reason. Or ego for no reason. I told them our fate isn’t going to change until we get some humility. Cool does not win. You’ve got to be willing to do the uncomfortable things that go into winning and if all you’re worried about is getting 12 points regardless of the outcome for our team, it’s going to continue.

Getting 12 points is not the problem with this team. This is not the Bruins of Murray and MacLean where there was not enough basketball to go around two elite and greedy scorers. This is a team lacking stars trying to fit in. It was a team that did what the coach asked and it got them beat.

Now, the Washington State game was different. UCLA’s defense was virtually perfect for 20 minutes after being damn good against an even better Washington team. It let up in the second half and came apart in overtime, but let’s breakdown the last play. Cronin told the team:

Mick Cronin made one point above all others in the huddle as UCLA set its defense for the stop it needed in the final seconds to beat Washington State.

Don’t help off the corner three-point line. If the Cougars get a layup, that’s fine, just inbound the ball and make free throws. Whatever you do, don’t give up an open shot from long range that could tie the score.

That’s exactly what happened Saturday afternoon at Beasley Coliseum.

Prince Ali was beat by his man and Jules Bernard came over to help. Bernard’s man hit a wide open three. This is definitely not on Coach Cronin as it was literally the opposite of what he told them to do.

Now let’s turn to the offense. In the Cal State Fullerton game, UCLA started its twin towers offense with Jalen Hill at center and Cody Riley at power forward. The Bruins tried to work the ball into them, but Fullerton just collapsed and dared UCLA to shoot outside. Tyger Campbell took advantage of the situation and had his best game: going 3 of 7 from three and dished out nine assists. But the rest of the team went 2 of 13 from three. It seemed that Cronin panicked and was barfing out lineups in hopes of finding something that worked. A great example was the first sub, Shareef O’Neal, who played a couple minutes and never played again:

Cronin said redshirt freshman forward Shareef O’Neal played only three minutes against Fullerton because of matchup issues involving the Titans’ bevy of three-point shooters and mature, strong centers.

Ah no. Cal State Fullerton has nothing on UCLA strength-wise and O’Neal is better than Fullerton’s weak bigs. UCLA out rebounded Fullerton by 11 despite Fullerton shooting over 50%. And, if the first was true (bevy of three-point shooters), why was O’Neal the first sub? Or, why did he play at all?

In the Washington State game, Chris Smith was the starting power forward and clearly UCLA’s best player. In 26 minutes, limited by some questionable foul calls, Smith scored 22 points on 8 of 14 shooting. On the last play of the game, Cronin called for Smith to shoot knowing that Smith is a tough guard off the dribble one-on-one for any Pac-12 big, but Smith wanted a screen and that resulted in him being doubled and losing the ball. Cronin said:

It’s an iso for Chris [Smith]. . .. He wanted a pick and roll, which I didn’t want, because then they would’ve just double-teamed him. The guy guarding him had four fouls. I wanted him to attack the guy.

Smith reverted to bad Alford habits. Coach Alford loved a high screen. It is not a good play for Smith and it was his mistake. And I don’t mean to take anything away from Smith. He played a great game, but to expect him to go from little used player without a position to elite Pac-12 power forward without any bumps in the road is not realistic. That is not on Cronin. Rather Cronin gets credit in my book for helping Smith show signs of living up to the potential after years of being an intriguing raw player.

Then, there is the context of the games.

UCLA has a clearly superior roster to Cal State Fullerton. Any of the 11 players who are in the rotation for UCLA would start for Fullerton. Fullerton would gladly do a roster switch with UCLA. But it is more than that. UCLA was at home. The Bruins should have blown out the Titans but were down by 14 in the second half of the game. Fullerton got tight and the Pac-12 refs helped UCLA. The Bruins shot 18 free throws to just 8 for Fullerton in the game. Now, part of that is the fact that UCLA is an inside team and Fullerton is outside team, but keep in mind that UCLA was pressing hard and trying to come back. They got calls. No one on the Bruins was in foul trouble and the only bad thing that happen is Jaime Jaquez Jr. did turn his ankle and had to leave for a few minutes. But, besides that, UCLA had the talent, the home court and the refs on their side and still lost to an awful Fullerton team.

Compare this to the Washington State game. UCLA was playing in the second game in their first Pac-12 road trip of the season less than 48 hours after their biggest win of the season. The referees basically made UCLA empty the bench in the first half when, effectively, four starters had 2 or 3 fouls. Smith and Campbell had two in the first four minutes. I guarantee that does not happen if the game is at Pauley. While I am not sure of Washington State’s talent level compared to UCLA, I will say Washington State’s Isaac Bonton made some incredible shots against good defense. Something that no one in the Cal State Fullerton team could do. CJ Elleby, who hit the game tying shot, was on the All-Pac-12 Freshmen team last year. Washington State had some talented players, the refs and the home court. Despite the fact that Washington State was a tough game, but for a few mistakes, UCLA would have had a Pac-12 road sweep.

To wrap up, as always Wooden is right, the activity or effort is there for this team, but that is not enough. The effort is there as shown by UCLA out-rebounding its opponents every game this season. However, defense is a new thing for these guys and they make mistakes. It is up to Coach Cronin to put the players in a position where they have the opportunity to succeed.

The best example may be Chris Smith. Until recently, I would argue that Cronin used Smith poorly. Smith is an elite Pac-12 power forward or four. Yet, Cronin made him a three to start the season. Then, when he was outplayed at the three by Jaime Jaquez, he benched him. UCLA struggled. He then moved Smith to the four where he scored 39 points with 19 rebounds and 6 assists in two games and became UCLA’s zone breaker.

Not playing Smith correctly is on Cronin. Smith calling for a screen and misplaying the last shot is on Smith.

I am still mad at Cronin for the Fullerton game. I have a hard time with bad strategy that leads to losses to awful teams at home and then blaming the players.

On the other hand, I am okay with the Washington State loss and even like the way we played as a whole. This is a team that is going to make mistakes and is learning a new culture. I can live with that, win or lose.

Beat SC!