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How Did Coach Cronin Turn Around UCLA Basketball?

The non-conference portion of the schedule was a disaster, but the Pac-12 schedule is a miracle.

UCLA v Chaminade
UCLA Coach Mick Cronin has a reason to smile after his Bruins have won five in a row.
Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

The UCLA Bruins are a half game out of first in the Pac-12 conference standings with just three games left in the regular season. But for an overtime road loss to a well-coached Washington State team, UCLA would be in first.

Who saw that coming?

If you say you did, you’re lying. After statistically the worst loss since Kenpom created his rating system, things looked really bad. I honestly believe that Fullerton was a game where you could have taken any combinations of scholarship players on the UCLA roster and won.

But that was just it, Cronin was not playing to win that game. He chose to throw away the non-conference season to try establish a new culture, give everyone one a chance, and build for the future. The result is two-fold. UCLA is now playing better basketball than anyone expected before the season. Remember: the media picked UCLA to finish eighth in the conference. Yet, in the Pac-12, they are beating ranked teams on the road and even at altitude. The second result is the team has an identity that could make them a good team for the future. In a nutshell, Cronin’s Bruins own the paint. You are not going to rebound or score easily inside against UCLA. Or as Cronin would want it said, “no one is going to out-tough UCLA.”

That is not to say the team does not have flaws, it does. They have trouble with three-pointers on offense as well as on defense and they can struggle against a press. But, right now, this team is overachieving its talent level. How did Cronin get UCLA here? How is he doing on expectations?

The Cronin Fits and Non-Fits

Before the season, I wrote a preview of the bigs. I wrote that Jalen Hill was the most Cronin-like player and likely to be the most successful. I also wrote that Cody Riley and Shareef O’Neal could become stars, but that it was unlikely this year. Hill seems to be on pace, Riley seems to be ahead of pace in the last four games and O’Neal was the only washout. Riley and O’Neal were both Steve Alford-style players. Bigs that can play outside, stretch fours. O’Neal’s problem now was he was not a big who could play inside, at least not yet.

Grade: Based on Riley’s play, exceed expectations.

The Wings

I can’t lavish enough praise on Coach Cronin here for the improvement of Chris Smith. In the season preview, I thought this could happen but knew it was a herculean effort. I labeled Smith the best NBA potential and a Cronin-style player. The key line I wrote is in this paragraph and it explains why Cronin has been a success :

Smith is definitely a Cronin player. The question for Smith is: “How can he contribute on offense consistently?”

Smith has won games, including against a ranked Colorado team, with his offense and has become the go-to-guy. Yes, he has off games, but he is a legitimate force the other team has to key on, making it easier for other players.

Grade: Exceed Expectations. In my post, I was worried about being “flamed” by Bruin Nation posters for talking about Chris Smith’s pro potential. Now, there is a debate on where he will be drafted.


On the point guards before the season, to be blunt, I was scared. The fact that Jules Bernard was being talked about as point was frightening. Tyger Campbell was coming back from a serious injury and David Singleton had literally just started playing again. That nightmare has not happened. As a matter of fact what I thought was the rosiest scenario has happened:

If Tyger clicks and becomes an elite point, then almost certainly the Pac-12 writers will be wrong. Singleton plays some backup minutes and becomes the designated three-point shooter

Grade: Met most optimistic prediction

Okay, so, UCLA exceeded expectations from the pre-season. But what has changed from the bad losses to Fullerton and Hofstra? There are two things that have changed. One is the Bruins’ defense. The other is that Cronin has done what I thought he had to do.

Learning Help Defense Concept

Okay, let me be honest. I all but gave up on the team after that loss to Cal State Fullerton that is right now keeping us out of the NCAA tournament. I wrote in hyperbolic anger:

UCLA lost 77-74 to a 3-10 Fullerton team. Sorry, 4-10 now. UCLA let Fullerton shoot 58% from three. Over double their season percentage of 27% from three. Fullerton shot 9 of 13 from three in the second half and led by as many as 14. It is now obvious that the Washington Generals or any five guys playing at the Y right now could get an open three look against UCLA. . . . The mid-range jumper is a dying art. Yet, the Bruins double all these guys around the free throw line. They pass out for an open three. Yes, Fullerton shot better than expected, but every three but one to my count was a good open shot. Cronin needs to improve the three-point defense.

What changed?. Against Colorado the double came when needed in the paint and on a drive. In other words, the team started to double smart, not every single time. The post defense one-on-one is also good. And the interior defense is awesome. Forget a guy from the Y, it is a battle to get a basket inside against UCLA for anyone. We have been good in the second half in part because we wear the other team down.

Lineups From the Hat

Cronin’s substitution pattern was bizarre. Again let me quote from the Cal State Fullerton article:

Before the game, I wondered if Kyman is going to play. During the game, he gets the chance at the game-tying three. Overall, Cronin played 11 guys. On the slightly positive side, Prince Ali only played 10 minutes. He was MINUS 17 in those ten minutes. Please bench him, deep down the bench. Then, there is Shareef O’Neal. He was first off the bench but then never played again. What the heck is going on? Did his name not come out of the hat?

It is obvious now he was not trying to accomplish two things in the non-conference. As soon as the Pac-12 schedule started, Cronin shortened the bench and went to a logical rotation. Part of that logical rotation is he plays Riley and Bernard off the bench in the second half and goes deeper in the first half. He also plays the hot hand off the bench. Look at Bernard’s minutes. Against Utah, he was on fire so he plays 33 minutes. Against Colorado, he plays 12 because Kyman is hot and plays 17. In contrast, Kyman played just one minute against Utah. This makes sense. Ali and Olesinski who started the season play because of fouls or in the first half only.

The other reason is he was constantly pulling players until they learn to hustle and not make mistakes. Now, he rarely pulls players for mistakes.

Grade: Exceed expectations. The lineup is now clicking as starters and it seems every night a different bench player steps up to help.

Smith at 4 and Singleton for Ali

Without looking, can anyone tell me the starting lineup for the first game under Coach Cronin? Tyger Campbell at point, Jules Bernard at shooting guard, Chris Smith wing, Alex Olesinski at power forward, and Cody Riley at center. Again if you guessed that, you have a phenomenal memory or more likely you cheated. That lineup has two current starters and only one player still playing in the same position.

Why did Cronin do it? Different reasons in different cases. Alex is obviously the smartest player and probably learned what Coach Cronin wanted quickest. He is also a senior. Alex is the least talented player on the team, but he works hard and does not complain. On the others? Well, Cronin gave almost everyone a chance, only Jake Kyman and the now-departed Shareef O’Neal did not start a game this season.

Next, this team struggled on offense to start. Cronin wanted Campbell to focus on not turning the ball over. In that first game, Campbell had five assists and four turnovers against an awful Long Beach team. Against Colorado, he had 11 assists to one turnover. This is not a fluke. While he had at least a turnover in every game of the non-conference schedule, he has four games without a turnover during the conference schedule.

Then, there is Singleton and Ali. Singleton basically was cleared to practice the day the season started. He had to get in shape. When Singleton was healthy, Ali was done. Fans wanted Singleton at the start, but he was not ready.

Smith moved to four. Smith is an impossible guard at the Pac-12 level. If you put a big on him, he drives. If you put a wing on him, he is an elite rebounder. Smith to the four opens up everything else. Why did he not do it earlier? Not sure on this one. Maybe it was to get Hill and Riley more minutes for the later payoff.

And, he went young. Ali and Alex don’t play at all in the second half.

Grade: Met Expectations Cronin is now doing what many expected before the season with the lineup. Cronin was not building to win over a Hofstra or Cal State Fullerton. The strange minute allocation probably cost us those games. But, now, the team is playing at an unimaginable level and part of it was the pulling of people and giving a lot of minutes in the non-conference to everyone.

Cronin has turned the team around in an unbelievable fashion.

Thank you, Coach Cronin!

Go Bruins!