Mick Cronin wore a UCLA letter jacket mimicking the same late coach as John Wooden in his heyday and asked questions from reporters about his men’s surprising NCAA tournament run in 2021 – a number 11 team now under the bladder fell sweet 16 teams.
“Nobody has 11 banners,” said Cronin of Wooden’s 10 national championship banners hanging in the Pauley Pavilion next to the last title in 1995. These banners also hang over the coaches who have followed Wooden on one of the sport’s most famous basketball programs.
It’s no pressure for 49-year-old Cronin, who led Cincinnati to a Sweet 16 in 2012. It is a challenge.
In a year that marked the death of the blue blood, Cronin and his Bruins (20-9) were the outliers – they stormed back from 14 points on Tom Izzo’s Michigan State Spartans, ousting Brigham Young (# 6) and upstart Abilene Christian comes to the second weekend of the tournament.
“The noise is louder here,” Cronin told USA TODAY Sports when he was hired by the Bruins in 2019. “Just like it’s louder in Kentucky, louder in North Carolina and louder in Duke. It’s a (blue blood). I divert criticism and focus on the job … … the way it looks from the outside – that this one an impossible job is to keep the fans happy – trust me when I say that if I can’t win, I’ll try ten times harder. “
Despite adverse circumstances, Cronin has won two seasons at Westwood so far. UCLA ended a win just before the regular season Pac-12 title last season with a depleted squad. That season, the Bruins lost a signed five-star recruit to the G-League in the summer before losing the team’s second-best top scorer, Chris Smith, to an eight-game injury that season.
In the meantime, these highly hyped Blue Blood teams are no longer dancing. Duke was the pre-season # 8 team in the Ferris Mowers Coaches Poll and missed the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1995. North Carolina, the pre-season # 16 team, lost the first round at 23 to Wisconsin as No. 8 seeds. Kentucky, the preseason # 9 team, finished the race 9-16 and was nowhere near the postseason in its worst season under coach John Calipari.
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A student of Rick Pitino and Bob Huggins, Cronin simply lets his team play with the same defensive tenacity and fiery attitude that his Cincinnati teams have shown during a 13-year tenure criticized for underperforming the NCAA tournament. Last season, before the NCAA tournament was canceled, Cronin put the Bruins list at the top of the bubble when they won their last seven games. This season, despite losing Smith and dealing with COVID-19 disruption, UCLA won their first eight games in the Pac-12. After losing four games in the NCAA tournament, UCLA is the only team to have won three games in Indianapolis. Whenever Cronins Bruins are hit, they hit back – harder.
Cronin, not censoring his opinion, politely hit back on the organization that stole that first high-profile recruit last summer. Daishen Nix, former UCLA commit, signed a letter of intent with the Bruins before deciding not to participate in the NBA’s G-League.
“I would just say we shouldn’t act like we’re on the same team,” Cronin said of the NCAA and the NBA. “College basketball has been a free farm system for the NBA for 40 years. And it is and will be the best place for a younger player’s development. … I am aware that this is in Midtown Manhattan (in the NBA office) of the Case is) You are not really concerned about my opinion and that’s fine. I don’t think (NBA Commissioner) Adam Silver is concerned. He works for 30 owners and they are all capitalists as they should be.
“… I have nothing but love for Daishen, I only wish him the best, but as for the NBA, they are worried about the NBA.”
Cronin’s stance underscores a change in the one-and-do era of sport. Several planned NBA lottery newbies to this year’s March Madness – Oklahoma State’s Cade Cunningham, LSU’s Cameron Smith, and USC’s Evan Mobley – have offset a trend that saw four of the top 20 players out of 247 Sports in the 2020 class for six Played professionally – configure salary instead of gambling in college Cronin quickly realized that NCAA basketball is a far better way to go.
“The experience is second to none and I believe (NCAA Hoops) is the best basketball development anyone will get,” said Cronin. “That’s just my belief. That doesn’t mean I’m right. Everyone has a right to their opinion.”
The Bruins run took place amid a deluge of Pac-12 teams who did well in the NCAA tournament as the mighty Big Ten – who had four top 2 seeds and got nine teams dancing – struggled.
“In Cincinnati, I felt like I had lifted the Titanic. It was dead in every way, “said Cronin, who led the Bearcats to nine NCAA tournaments in 13 seasons to hit a record of 296-147.” Not only was it buried, but also under the largest conference – the Big East with 16 teams. In six years we played from the last to the title (2012). When you train in a league like the NBA every night, it’s like the world is collapsing inside you. … that prepared me for this chapter I am in right now. “
Follow college basketball reporter Scott Gleeson on Twitter @ScottMGleeson.