June 12, 2024

He’s questioned his players’ understanding of the game. He’s lamented his lack of name, image and likeness resources. He’s threatened to overhaul his young roster.

For much of the season, Mick Cronin has sounded like someone on the verge of a basketball crisis, if not an existential one.

The UCLA coach said he doesn’t read what’s written about him, but he’s heard from others about what they perceive as him expressing unhappiness in his job through his comments in the media.

So after his team staged its most improbable comeback of the season Wednesday night, Cronin pushed back himself.

As he stood in a hallway deep inside Desert Financial Arena, his team having polished off Arizona State after trailing by 15 points early in the second half, the coach suggested the only thing blue these days is the Bruins’ uniforms.

“I love UCLA, trust me,” Cronin told The Times. “I want it to be my last job. No matter what anybody says — I’ve heard stuff — I’m the coach at freaking UCLA. Like, come on, man. … To [predecessor] Ben Howland and me, we’ve sat in John Wooden’s chair. Come on, man. So I don’t want that narrative out there.”

After guiding the Bruins to a Final Four and two more Sweet 16s during his past three seasons, Cronin’s current team does not appear bound for glory. UCLA is 8-10 overall and 3-4 in the Pac-12, putting the Bruins on pace for their first losing record since Steve Alford’s team went 15-17 during the 2015-2016 season.

Barring a breakthrough Saturday against No. 12 Arizona (13-4, 4-2) at the McKale Center as part of a sustained turnaround or a championship run in the Pac-12 tournament, Cronin’s streak of taking his teams to 12 consecutive NCAA tournaments going back to his final nine seasons at Cincinnati will end in March.

The coach is clearly frustrated, and not just about this team’s fortunes. He believes recent misfortune might have cost UCLA its first national championship since 1995.

UCLA coach Mick Cronin, center, looks on during a blowout loss to Utah on Jan. 11.

UCLA coach Mick Cronin, center, looks on during a blowout loss to Utah on Jan. 11.

(Rick Bowmer / Associated Press)

Cronin said the Bruins could have won the title in 2022 had Jaime Jaquez Jr. not blown out his ankle near the end of the Saint Mary’s game in the NCAA tournament, leading to his hobbled play in a loss to North Carolina the following week. Last season, Cronin said, UCLA was “clearly the best team in the country” before Jaylen Clark and Adem Bona went down with season-ending injuries.

“So we’ve been on a charmed ride,” Cronin said. “Tough run this year, it is what it [is] … great kids on the team, I’m going to try to coach them hard and try to get them better. They have to improve. So for me, it’s about them. We’ll address the roster at the end of the season, but right now, it’s about them and trying to help them get better.”

Even with seven freshmen among his eight newcomers, Cronin clearly thought this team could win at a high level based on his comments during the Maui Invitational, when he said he took it as a personal insult that the Bruins weren’t nationally ranked based on their recruiting class.

As his team went on to lose eight of nine games, Cronin acknowledged that having a roster ranking No. 319 out of 362 Division I teams in experience, according to basketball analyst Ken Pomeroy, was an issue leading to so many close losses. Asked about roster construction, Cronin compared his team to the chintzy Cincinnati Reds fighting the cash-infused Dodgers for free agents based on UCLA’s shortfall in NIL dollars preventing it from snagging top transfers.

“Nobody has put in more effort than me on the Men of Westwood,” Cronin said, referring to the team’s primary NIL collective. “But I’m not into effort; I’m into getting the job done. So I’ve got to work harder. But the people who have helped, I greatly appreciate them.”

The Bruins were in the running for Rutgers sharpshooter Cam Spencer (now making 46.8% of his three-pointers and averaging 15.5 points for Connecticut) and USC’s Reese Dixon-Waters (now averaging 12.1 points for San Diego State) but lost out for various reasons. They did get Utah guard Lazar Stefanovic, whose 18 points against Arizona State on Wednesday were a season high.

UCLA guard Lazar Stefanovic controls the ball in front of Arizona State forward Alonzo Gaffney.

UCLA guard Lazar Stefanovic controls the ball in front of Arizona State forward Alonzo Gaffney during a Bruins victory Wednesday.

(Ross D. Franklin / Associated Press)

The Bruins’ lack of hits in the transfer market, not to mention their inability to secure enough local high school prospects in a relatively weak class, forced Cronin to pivot to Europe. Though highly rated, three of the four players he landed from overseas have not made a quick impact amid injuries and ineffectiveness.

Guard Ilane Fibleuil has struggled to grasp the intricacies of college basketball. Guard Jan Vide missed nearly a month with a sprained ankle. Center Aday Mara, at 7 feet 3 and 240 pounds, appears underweight and overmatched. Only forward Berke Buyuktuncel has found a reliable role as a starter after rounding into form from an ankle injury and sitting out three games while awaiting NCAA clearance.

There have been some success stories. Freshman guard Sebastian Mack has emerged as the team’s leading scorer amid some maddening deficiencies on defense and freshman forward Brandon Williams reminds some of a young Jaquez with his fearlessness off the bench.

But for most of the season’s first 2½ months, too many of these young Bruins’ steps have been stumbles.

Late in the first half against Arizona State, four UCLA players clustered around the basket like traffic cones, just standing there watching as Jamiya Neal’s wild shot from the corner caromed off the backboard.

Into the collective inertia raced Sun Devils guard Frankie Collins to grab the ball and go in for an easy putback.

A livid Cronin immediately called a timeout, yanking two players.

It made no difference.

There was no button Cronin could push, no lever he could pull to shake his team out of its funk as it fell into a 15-point hole before its defense tightened and its shots started falling to spark the comeback.

A look at the teams’ rosters illustrated the challenge UCLA has faced all season against more veteran counterparts.

Like UCLA, Arizona State nearly turned over its entire team, returning just one starter. But the similarities ended there. While the Bruins brought in practically all freshmen, the Sun Devils went heavy on transfers. Along with two freshmen, Arizona State’s roster included two new transfers from Louisiana State and one each from Louisville, Houston Baptist, West Virginia, San Francisco and Tulsa — eight transfers in all.

UCLA coach Mick Cronin shouts directions to guard Jan Vide during a win over Washington on Sunday.

UCLA coach Mick Cronin shouts directions to guard Jan Vide during a win over Washington on Sunday.

(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

That glut of experience helped the Sun Devils win their first five games decided by three points or fewer before faltering against the Bruins. By comparison, nine of UCLA’s 10 losses have come by single digits.

It’s a similar story for Arizona, which brought in three transfers who are playing massive roles including guard Caleb Love, forward Keshad Johnson and sixth man Jaden Bradley. The Wildcats are the only nationally ranked Pac-12 team and are likely to get another good seed in the NCAA tournament.

Meanwhile, UCLA continues to seek continuity after starting nine different players. Amid their many issues, the Bruins play with little purpose on offense and could go down as one of the worst-shooting teams in school history.

UCLA’s average of 64.4 points per game is the lowest since the adoption of the shot clock for the 1985-86 season and its 28.8% three-point accuracy is the worst since the three-point shot was adopted for the 1986-87 season.

Along the way, Cronin has told his players to not worry about missed shots and focus on playing with confidence no matter what’s happening.

“He always lets us know that he still believes in us,” Mack said, “and he still thinks that we can still do it.”

Having entered the season with 464 victories — the most of any active coach 53 years old or younger at the NCAA Division I level — Cronin knows what it takes to win. He just needs to make sure his players do as well.

“I’ve accomplished enough,” said Cronin, who will turn 53 in July. “I know some people don’t think I have; I have. I’ve been coach of the year in many conferences, I’ve been to a Final Four, I’m a kid from the west side of Cincinnati whose dad was a high school coach. It’s about them, so I’ve got to help them keep getting better and if you do the right things, you get a chance to win.”

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