WATCH: Mick Cronin on UCLA’s Mindset, Preparing For Washington

The Bruins will face the Huskies at Pauley Pavilion on Thursday after losing back-to-back Pac-12 contests.

UCLA men’s basketball coach Mick Cronin spoke with reporters ahead of Wednesday morning’s practice at the Mo Ostin Basketball Center. Cronin talked about looking past wins and losses, where the Bruins can improve moving forward, Amari Bailey’s role upon his return from injury, Jaylen Clark’s shooting struggles and what UCLA can expect from Washington on Thursday night.

After two losses, is that something you work on with your team, the mental aspect of getting back on track and not letting things snowball?

We don’t really talk about whether we won or lost as much as you—and I understand it’s your job and the fans’ bottom line, especially if you’re on Fan Duel—you liked that, they get really upset with me, I’m sure—but anyway yeah, you’ve got to focus on getting better, so what I try to tell you guys, like even if we win, I might not think we played well and there’s compartments to seasons and I tell you guys that all the time and you’re always working better to get better and you’re always working toward March and then you’ve got different things that go on, so like for us, we played without Amari Bailey for a long period of time, so now we’re into reincorporating him. We didn’t have Will and Mac early, trying to get them into a comfort zone, trying to get rotations down, so that’s really our focus and what we need to do to play well on Thursday night. I think that’s really—and I get it, obviously you’ve got to win games, but we try to focus on improving whether you win or lose, because you can play bad and win and you walk around like everything’s great, give me the chocolate cake, and it’s not and then reality hits you in the form of a team that’s good enough to beat you, so that’s my answer to that, but we’re back to being at home and you’ve got to win at home, so you know how I feel about that if you’re going to compete for a conference championship, you’ve got to win at home; if you’re trying to get a high seed in the NCAA tournament, you’ve got to try to go undefeated at home or be a one-loss team at home.

What are areas you’re targeting for improvement?

Well, very rare for us in our last game, you know, we turned the ball over and gave up 20 points off turnovers, so it would be very easy—and I give USC credit for that, they turned up the heat and we didn’t deal with that. I think the game has gotten—all the games I watch and our last two games have gotten unbelievably physical. We’re a team that’s a low-foul team, so we’ve got to make some adjustments to the way the game’s being called and be prepared for the physicality of the games better. That, and obviously you’ve got to get back to getting points off turnovers. That solves a lot of problems.

Shooting percentages just kind of take care of themselves?

I’m a big believer that there’s ebbs and flows to that based on who you’re playing, where you’re playing. That being said, you’ve got to always try to—the ultimate test is to execute at a high level on the road against a really good team playing really physical. That’s the challenge, which we weren’t able to meet that challenge, so sure, we’re trying to improve in that area for sure.

Amari looked really good in his first game back?

Well, we weren’t going to let Amari play until he was physically, his foot had no ill effects. I mean, you weren’t going to see him out there at 80% – the guy’s got a career ahead of him, so.

Move him back into the starting lineup?

You know, Thursday Washington’s going to play a zone, he didn’t play against them the first time, so I’m actually not sure about our starting lineup Thursday.

Jaylen has had some shooting struggles early – what’s the key for him to kind of re-find some of what he had in the first couple of months of the season?

Well, you’ve got to be able to see your target, so he’s watched a lot of film with our assistant coaches where his head’s not on the rim as a finisher, he’s flipping, and he’s got an array of shots but you have to have your head on the rim. For lack of a better term, you know I’m a movie guy so American Sniper with Chris Kyle, snipers eye their target before they shoot so got to get his head back on the rim before he lets the ball go. You’ve got to find your target and he’s got to get on balance better. So whether we win or lose, there’s things we’re trying to improve on, but again, and there’s ebbs and flows to a season as far as guy making open shots but that in particular has been an issue for him, what I call taking blind shots at the rim. That will kill your percentage, and I don’t care what your name is, you can be LeBron James or Jaylen Clark, if you’re taking blind shots off-balance, you’re going to struggle.

Top five guys in UCLA history in steals are all point guards – what makes Jaylen so good in that department?

Rod Foster? I was a big fan of him when I was a little kid. Well, Jaylen Clark has great anticipation skills, but we’ve got to get him back to that, he’s got to start smelling the ball more, we’ve got to get him some layups on the break and help his field-goal percentage, but he’s got elite anticipation skills, always has. Now, his dad Neal takes credit for that, he’s from Newark and Brick City, a lot of toughness, and he played with some great players and in all seriousness his dad gave him great advice when he was young, like if you want to get on the floor with all these Compton Magic guys and you’re playing with the Mobleys and Johnny Juzang, you better be able to play defense, but my dad told me the same stuff but I’m not 6-5 and a great athlete, so it didn’t quite work as well.

Any common threads with lack of execution in half court offense over the last month?

Every game is different, so the answer to that would be no, and what I would tell you is what I say every year when January comes and conference play comes, with familiarity games change, exponentially change for a lot of reasons. Physicality in Power Five basketball is real, official fatigue is real and coaches pound nails, batten down the hatches and it’s much harder to score and we have great coaches in the Pac-12. That being said, we’ve had some guys in our ebbs and flows that haven’t shot the ball as well, but I would say execution goes back to passing—you have better passing, you’re going to have better shooting and get easier shots.

Washington stuck with Arizona for a half – when they’re on, what makes them tough?

Well, when their zone can cause you problems and they’re able to create steals, because they’re all facing their own basket the other direction, if they get a steal they’re in a track stance to run ahead and they’re going to lay it in, so you can’t turn it over against their zone. If you do, it’s an automatic basket. Secondly, Noah Williams was out for the better part of the early season for them and I think he returned against us, but it was his first game in a long time. Since then, he has been a double-figure scorer, shot a high percentage and he’s a veteran in this league, he’s given them, Keion Brooks, he’s given them a Robin to Batman, so they’ve got two veteran guys with Brooks and Noah Williams who can get you buckets and it’s changed their zone because now they’re playing Noah Williams on the top of the zone, so they’re really only got one smaller guy, and it’s really important if you’re going to play zone to have length, so it’s made their zone better, it’s made their offense better for sure, him just being healthy and now that he’s consistent, he’s playing really well. They’re 4-1 in their last five, their only loss is to Arizona. 

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