WATCH: Mick Cronin Talks UCLA’s Offense, Limiting Turnovers

The Bruins’ offense and defense both rank in the top 10 on KenPom heading into their rivalry matchup with the Trojans.

UCLA men’s basketball coach Mick Cronin spoke to reporters ahead of Wednesday morning’s practice at the Mo Ostin Center. Cronin talked about how his offense has thrived despite his reputation as a defensive coach, what it’s taken to limit turnovers, Amari Bailey’s health, the current state of the USC rivalry, Adem Bona’s growth and David Singleton’s leadership.

You’ve been joking about being asked to do offensive clinics now…

Back to defense.

It’s basically even this year, but your offenses have ranked above your defenses on KenPom since you got here – what’s gone into that?

I honestly don’t know. I’m going to call Ken Pomeroy and ask him. I do figure that sometimes the previous years factor in, so it takes years to balance it out, years to go off, so just like the AP has to guess and rank teams, as they do rankings to start the year there’s numbers from the previous year, but don’t quote on me on that, I’m pretty sure, but to your point, I think offense is pretty simple in basketball. If you can play five on five, you have a better chance of scoring than if you play four on five; your chances go down if you play three on five, meaning if you only have two or three guys, the other team knows those are the only guys who can really score, it’s hard to scheme. You actually might be a better coach if you can win with only two guys who can score, so you know, I’ve dealt with all of it through the years. I’ll take you back to 20 years ago, my first team, I was at Murray State—go Racers—we played five on five, we averaged 82 a game, second in the nation in assists and field-goal percentage. We played five on five, so I think that’s the key—talent is the key, so there’s a lot more to it than numbers and saying, ‘Well, this guy’s a defensive guy.’ That’s why I make fun of it because it would like me saying, ‘I know why Marshalls puts certain clothes in what aisle’ just because I walked in there one day, you know, just because people watch a game they think they [know] but I understand, it is what it is.

Turnovers have been off-the-charts excellent?

Now, we do practice that. We’re huge on no turnovers, we chart them in practice, we talk about them every day, the biggest thing that would draw my ire is a turnover. Like, we have a saying, who turns the ball over? I make them say it—you’re either soft or a bad player. Really good players don’t turn the ball over unless they’re lazy, they’re gambling, they’re making bad decisions, but when you have the ball, you have to be responsible for the whole team and it just goes back to, I don’t try to come in here and impress you guys talking about analytics but we were doing that stuff—I worked for Bob Huggins in the ‘90s and you get more shots off than the other team, I don’t have to get admitted to UCLA to tell you we have a better chance, OK? So if you’re plus in rebounding, you’re plus in turnovers, you’re probably going to be plus in field-goal attempts and plus in possessions, so you’ve got a better chance to win. So we practice that, oh yeah, and Tyger’s great at that, to your point, he and I have been together for a long time now, it’s been a huge advantage for me. He’s never out of control—it’s almost like when David misses a shot you’re surprised, if Tyger turns it over you’re surprised because he doesn’t gamble with the ball and that’s why all coaches love Tyger, anybody I talk to, coaches around the country that I talk to in basketball, everybody loves Tyger because coaches hate turnovers, it drives them nuts.

Sixth in offense efficiency, seventh in defensive efficiency – does being that high in both categories make you a dual-threat and hard to beat?

Yeah, but we’ll see if we’re sixth and seventh tomorrow against USC, so just because those numbers do mean something, but it’s what you have done, so I think it’s indicative of what you’re capable of and our offense wasn’t as efficient as I would have liked it on the road trip, we’re still searching in that area. Now we abruptly lost Amari, so that throws off your rotation, so as you’re trying to get Will, Dylan and Abramo, to figure out your rotations offensively, I’d like us to get back to being more efficient.

How is Amari?

He’s good, he’s got a foot injury and it’s going to take some time. I don’t think it will take that much time but I don’t know. One thing about it is, I’m semi-intelligent but I’m not a doctor, so I know this—around here, we take care of our players first, so he’s had multiple opinions on it, so it’s not anything that’s going to affect his career, but he’ll be back out there when he’s ready but he’s not going to play tomorrow.

What does the USC rivalry being healthy mean for college basketball in LA and the programs?

Well, I think it’s great. Since I’ve been here, they’ve had some great players—the Mobleys, and Onyeka Okongwu, now they’ve got Boogie Ellis and Drew Peterson’s had an unbelievable career, so what I like about our USC rivalry is, it’s about basketball. You know, I’m not saying there’s not bad blood, but I don’t know, LA’s such a big city I’m sure there’s families that get upset over it, the difference is, in a lot of rivalries—I come from Cincinnati-Xavier, I was part of Kentucky-Louisville and we’re in the same league, so we played three times last year, so it’s probably different even just for our football program. We play so our often and our guys probably know each other so well in the small basketball world nowadays that our rivalry’s about basketball, it’s not a rivalry out of hatred by any stretch—I have great respect for their program.

Adem is coming off such a strong performance – what can you tell us about him?

Adem’s an unbelievable kid. Guys like Adem and Kenny, people don’t really understand their perspective on life is so much different than American kids when you come from countries that are not quite as developed and you don’t grow up with the amenities that all of our kids grow up with, so they have a maturity beyond their years and an appreciation, they’re thankful for everything. Adem’s a life guy, I mean he’s always in a good mood, he’s always got a smile and guys like him are healthy for your team—it’s good for the coach, too, because he’s always bringing a smile, even when I’m down. He’s one of those guys who puts his arm around you [and says], ‘It’s going to be all right, coach.’

How much did you like seeing David keep Adem away from trouble on the play where he got tangled up?

Oh, yeah. Dave’s such a leader. I’ve said this about David, David was the key—and I stay in touch with all our guys, Cody, Jules, those guys are doing great, but David coming back was huge for us. He is a tremendous leader. Tyger’s a leader by example, he’s more of a quiet leader. David is more of a vocal, he really is, David’s got coach written all over him when he’s done playing, if he wants to, but he’s got success written all over him. David has tremendous work ethic, a maturity about his character, he’s got great parents, he reminds me a lot of myself, one of his parents being a teacher, his father being in training, so he’s just got great work ethic and it rubs off on our team. It’s fun to see this too because with Johnny and Jules and Peyton coming in, David’s role was diminished and he deserves to have the season that he’s having right now because he’s such a good kid and he’s done so much for our program.

Guys know each other so well – it is more detailed played USC?

Well, I will say there’s a lot of new ones in this rivalry this year, they’ve got a lot of new guys and we’ve got a lot of new guys—now, most of them being local, so Dylan and Kijani playing in high school together, I know Kijani, he’s a great kid, his mom’s a great lady, so there’s a lot of familiarity, so the scouting report’s a lot easier when you go to show because the other thing is, when we do game prep, you have to understand, we played Washington State, then the game’s over and we’re preparing for Washington but we’re watching USC—we always scout each other because we’re watching the other team, so it’s even more so because of the pairs and the travel partners, so not just the local factor, so we know them extremely well, they know us extremely well. But the thing about this rivalry, I was part of the Crosstown Shootout, it’s the most heated, hated rivalry, especially at different times—you had ranked teams, it was crazy, it was unhealthy at times. The thing I like about this, it’s about basketball so you don’t have to worry about the crazy stuff, you can just worry about the game. And we’re going to play again and we might play again in Vegas, so maybe one day you play four times, play in the NCAA tournament.

Making memories with people years from now?

Oh, I’m sure if you talked to the guys, I know there’s guys that I’ve spoken to that I’ve met that still lament the ‘70s—coach Boyd, who I didn’t know until I really moved here how great of a coach he was but he didn’t make the NCAA tournaments because back then if you didn’t win the Pac-12, you couldn’t get past UCLA, you couldn’t get to the NCAA tournament, how USC had some great teams, Bob Boyd had some great teams and he was an elite coach; my friend Larry Eustachy schooled me on that, so I really did not know that, it was quite amazing, so it’s great that Andy does a great job and it’s about basketball, they’ve got a good team, they’re coming off a tough one—Washington State’s a lot better, it doesn’t surprise me, Washington State’s a lot better than their record.

Coach Enfield has been the reverse because he came in with the Dunk City reputation?

Since I’ve gotten here, he’s doing defense. They defend the rim really well. Since he’s been here, it’s really hard to score around the basket against them. They were at 37% field-goal percent defense, Washington State made a ton of shots on them and it went up to 38, but they’re still top-10 in the nation—I think they’re seventh in field-goal percentage defense and then they’re two-point defense is elite and it has been, even with the Mobleys gone, Josh Morgan does a good job protecting the rim, but it’s schematic, that’s what they do. It’s really hard to score in the halfcourt around the rim around them, they’re first-shot defense has been great since I’ve been here. Like you said, Andy’s been here longer than I have, so it was a little bit different; when I got here, it changed. He flipped, he’s doing defensive clinics now.

You talked about needing a comeback win and went to Washington State and got it – what can you say about the team continuing to fight?

Well, what’ good, the reason that’s important is because now you can say, ‘How did we come back?’ We maximized our possessions on offense and they didn’t score a field goal in the last seven minutes against us, so as a coach, all coaches preach the same stuff, but when it’s reinforced in a victory like that, hopefully the guys learn this is what happens. Now, we couldn’t get a stop and that’s why we were losing and we won because we got stops and we started finishing better, we started getting to the foul line, so it reinforces the things that you’re teaching and it gives the guys—look, that’s not going to be the last time we’re in that situation, so your guys understand how do you come back in a game? You maximize your possessions on one end and get stops on the other end, and getting to the foul line is big as well because it stops the clock as you gain on your opponent, so it’s necessary but it’s not good for the coach’s health when you have to do that.

Went 28-for-30 on free throws in both games?

Yeah, I’m not going to comment on that. No, no. Actually, I’m glad that happened when my dad’s not in town. If he would have been with me, he’d have taken credit for that.

How were the holidays with him?

No, he’s on his way back. He’ll be back next week, so he checks the weather before he books his trips back but he definitely would have taken credit for the free throws if he was around. But it’s nice to see. I talked about after the game, making free throws matters. There’s so many games that I think the public and I’ll give you a game, go look it up, national championship, Syracuse-Kansas, Syracuse won the game, go look at Kansas’ free-throw attempts and it was unbelievable how may Kansas missed in that game, I mean, unbelievable, and they win the game probably five to 10 points if they make free throws, so it matters, it definitely matters, and we try not to give up free throws, I don’t know where we’re at right now but we’re always top 20 in fewest fouls in the country, I’m a big believer in no free throws. That’s also how your best players end up on the bench, it’s hard to win.

Being from Cincinnati, what did you see in the unity from that city after Monday Night Football?

I’ll be honest, I’ve been sick so I wasn’t really up on what was going on, but it’s just a reminder of how fragile life is for all these kids.

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