March 2, 2024

Pulling a disappearing act with reporters allowed Mick Cronin to prioritize a more important group.

His players.

The UCLA coach said he felt his young team needed him to linger in the locker room Saturday night after he noticed a jarring lack of hustle during the Bruins’ loss to California.

“I didn’t think it was there,” Cronin said Tuesday after apologizing to reporters for having skipped his normal postgame news conference three days earlier. “That was alarming to me, so I felt I needed to address it immediately because your culture is the most important thing. … At that time, they needed to see that I wasn’t concerned about anything else but the situation.”

It was the first time Cronin neglected to speak with reporters after a game he had coached at UCLA, though he said he previously used the tactic while at Cincinnati. Cronin sent assistant coach Rod Palmer to take questions while he spoke with players.

“He gave us a talk, but I would just leave that as a locker room talk because it’s kind of private,” senior center Kenneth Nwuba said. “We’ve just got to keep playing. You know, sometimes in life bad things happen and you’ve just got to keep pushing through and you just can’t quit.”

A week after criticizing his players and questioning their basketball aptitude, Cronin accepted responsibility for his team’s cratering season during a 21-minute session with reporters in which he acknowledged needing to fix the team’s broken offense.

“It’s still my job to deliver what the fans want,” said Cronin, whose Bruins (6-9 overall, 1-3 Pac-12) have dropped four consecutive home games and seven of eight overall, “so that has me unable to digest food. The kids are trying but our effort [against Cal], that is the biggest problem. If you lose that, you lose your culture and we’ve been great all year with that regardless of scoreboard.”

Cronin pointed to the Bruins giving up 14 offensive rebounds and playing uncharacteristically listless defense as evidence of their lagging effort during the 66-57 setback against Cal, UCLA’s first loss to the Golden Bears at Pauley Pavilion since 2010.

At the same time, Cronin praised his team for leading the Pac-12 in scoring defense (62.2 points per game) and field-goal percentage defense (39.1%) despite a roster featuring seven freshmen and three sophomores.

“I’m commending their effort,” Cronin said. “I mean, how many teams this young defend?”

Offense is the problem. Among the Bruins’ many issues, they rarely throw good passes, lack a reliable scorer and are making only 29% of their three-pointers, putting them on pace for a dubious school record.

Cronin said he’d actually like his team to take more three-pointers, provided they involve finding open shooters.

“Our guards struggle with that, so it’s just an area of coaching,” Cronin said. “We don’t have a guy that’s natural at that, we just don’t, and that’s my fault. … Shooting is a byproduct of passing. We take too many tough twos and it’s the worst shot in basketball.”

With point guard Dylan Andrews stuck in a season-long funk, Cronin tried to alleviate pressure by alternating Sebastian Mack and Jan Vide at point guard in the early going against Cal. That didn’t work, either, the Bruins continuing their search for ways to get easy baskets.

Cronin said he had not abandoned the idea of playing freshman Aday Mara alongside sophomore Adem Bona as part of a two-post lineup, indicating that Mara would play against Utah (11-4, 2-2) on Thursday at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City. The question facing Mara is whether he can reliably score to offset his subpar defense after having made just three of his last 12 shots.

“If we can get him going offensively — and we desperately need it,” Cronin said, “then I’ll just figure out the defensive part.”

After losing his top five scorers from last season to the NBA (Jaime Jaquez Jr., Jaylen Clark, Amari Bailey), a French pro league (Tyger Campbell) and exhausted eligibility (David Singleton), Cronin said a roster overhaul and the associated struggles were inevitable.

“There was really no way around it,” Cronin said. “You know, at some point all those guys were going to be gone and it just is what it is. And you know what the [transfer] portal is and what it’s really about — it’s not about the guys saying they connected with the coach.”

Cronin laughed as he finished the thought, alluding to the challenges his team faces to remain competitive in the name, image and likeness space that would allow it to import more veteran transfers. Where is UCLA’s basketball NIL support compared to where he would like it to be?

“Not there,” he said. “There’s a big gap.”

Contending that he had not been overly harsh on players trying their best, Cronin said it was on him to put those players in better positions to succeed.

“At some point as a coach, if you’re asking a guy to do something and he’s doing all he can,” Cronin said, “even though we didn’t get the win and we need more, if he’s doing all he can, do I really need to beat him up? … It’s hard if you’re constantly punching up, it’s hard to continue to punch up, and they’ve been doing it.”

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