February 24, 2024

You might not care for his sideline demeanor, you might not like how he criticizes his players, but Mick Cronin knows how to build winning teams, and the UCLA coach is doing it again in a season that was said to already be lost.

The same players Cronin blasted earlier this month have bought into what he’s teaching, and the Bruins have suddenly won three of their last four games.

Don’t count them out yet. Their season has just started.

They are still a sub-.500 team and will almost certainly have to win the Pacific 12 tournament to reach the NCAA tournament, but they’ve given themselves a real chance to do that by remaining in contention to be one of the four teams in the conference that earn a first-round bye.

These Bruins aren’t as talented as the Bruins who reached the Final Four three years ago.

These Bruins aren’t even as talented as the Bruins who played in the Sweet 16 in each of the last two years.

What these Bruins are is a Mick Cronin team.

They play defense, they play hard and they’re starting to do the little things that win big games, and that might be enough to overcome the absence of the kinds of premium players they’ve had in the past such as Jaime Jaquez Jr. or Johnny Juzang.

They’ve already done something no UCLA team has done under Cronin, becoming the first Bruins team coached by him to win on USC’s home court at Galen Center.

UCLA players on the bench celebrate Lazar Stefanovic hitting a 3-pointer against USC

UCLA players celebrate after Lazar Stefanovic hit a 3-pointer in the last two minutes of play against USC at the Galen Center on Saturday.

(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Their in-season metamorphosis could be measured by some of the statistics in their 65-50 victory on Saturday night, from their 10-0 advantage in offensive rebounds in the first half to how they had 14 more field goal attempts than the Trojans in the opening 20 minutes.

Perhaps a more accurate gauge of their improvement was in how Cronin talked about the same players whose aptitude he questioned earlier in the season.

“Not a lot has shocked me, to be honest with you,” Cronin said. “I knew they were good kids.”

This looked familiar. This sounded familiar.

Parallels can be drawn between this team and the first one Cronin coached in Westwood. Four years ago, in his first season at UCLA, Cronin inherited a freshman-heavy team. He was shockingly frank about the team’s shortcomings early in the season, and the players responded to his criticisms by playing up to his demands. Those Bruins played their way onto the NCAA tournament bubble, only the remainder of their season to be canceled before they played their first game of the Pac-12 tournament because of the pandemic.

Cronin’s first UCLA team might not have played a single NCAA tournament game, but the experience gained that season established a foundation for the three-year run that followed. Two of the freshmen on that team were Jaquez and Tyger Campbell.

With Jaquez and Campbell finishing their college careers last year, the cycle restarted. The current team’s leading scorer is Sebastian Mack, a freshman guard who played only 19 minutes against USC because of an injured toe.

“We lost five of our leading scorers from last year and replaced them with [junior transfer] Lazar [Stefanovic] and seven freshmen, so we were going to have growth spurts and we’re figuring it out,” Cronin said. “We’ve got great kids on this team, so they listen and they try.”

Cronin described this team the way he once described his first.

“I knew I was going to have to figure out a way to put them in a position to win because we don’t have overwhelming talent,” he said. “We don’t have a player of the year candidate, so we were going to have to figure out ways to do things, but also I was going to have to give them confidence. There was a stretch where they were losing their confidence and they were feeling the pressure of playing at UCLA.”

How did Cronin do that?

“Eliminate the result and what people are saying about them,” he said.

UCLA's Adem Bona goes up for a basket over USC's Vincent Iwuchukwu at the Galen Center on Saturday.

UCLA’s Adem Bona goes up for a basket over USC’s Vincent Iwuchukwu at the Galen Center on Saturday.

(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

He said he tries to be an example to his players by ignoring how the public perceives that he’s “testy or edgy or I don’t care.”

“Just do your job and be a good person and I try to get them to do the same thing,” Cronin said.

Has UCLA turned a corner?

“We’ll see,” Cronin said.

Cronin has given the Bruins a chance, which is more than they had a couple of weeks ago. The players have given themselves a chance, which will prove valuable in the seasons ahead, regardless of how this one finishes.

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