With the Pac-12 regular season title locked down, Cronin talked about what the Bruins need to do this weekend at Pauley Pavilion.
UCLA men’s basketball coach Mick Cronin spoke with reporters ahead of Wednesday morning’s practice session at the Mo Ostin Basketball Center. Cronin talked about the end of the regular season, his veterans’ energy level, preparing for the NCAA tournament, his relationship with Ben Howland, the Bruins’ press defense and what’s still at stake against Arizona State and Arizona.
How do you feel going into the final stretch?
Look, it’s nice to have the Pac-12 wrapped up but as a head coach you find reasons to be paranoid—you don’t even need them, you make them up, so obviously the concern for me is I’m a big believer in your emotional gas tank. Now, our guys want to finish strong at home, so that’s on our side, we’ve got high-character guys, some seniors that obviously this week means a lot to them but they do know we’ve won the Pac-12, so in a way I wish we needed both wins to win the Pac-12, so you don’t want to lose your edge because obviously Arizona State’s coming in where they’re either in or on the bubble of the tournament, so to speak, so they’re in a must-win situation, so these are things that coaches are paranoid about, it’s the life of a coach. My biggest thing is, we were off Monday, had a light day yesterday trying to get our legs back under us and emotionally get our gas tank back toward full.
What do you do for the emotional gas tank of a veteran team? Do you leave them on their own?
No, I mean we talk about it but they’re not rookies, they know it was a long road trip with the extra day, our furthest one—it’s going to be our shortest one in a few years, you know, they understand this week’s big for them, you know, I try to make it about them but we talked early in the year, Ben Howland came to practice and he said, ‘Look, you guys have to do whatever you’ve got to do to get the one seed in the West and you can do it’—and he was talking to Jaime and Tyger and David, he goes, ‘You guys are great players but,’ I mean, he watched practice, he’s like, ‘You guys are great leaders, you’ve got to try to get the one seed in the West,’ he was pounding it into those guys in his talk after practice and they’ve been focused on that. I told them to do it, you’re going to have to win the Pac-12, but reality is we’re going to have to win this week. If we’re going to do that, we’ve got to win two this week. So they understand that. So I don’t have to sell them on that, they’re well aware of that. Plus we’ve got our home winning streak and like I alluded to, you’ve got some guys that have had great careers at UCLA that this is their last week playing in front of their students and their fans at home, obviously.
Those seniors, what emotions are you feeling knowing they rode it out with you all this way?
You want them to finish strong, you know. You know, I heard this, obviously the price of success is high, but the price of regret, you’ll never be able to pay, you can’t get over it, so you don’t want them to, like I know the rest of their life they’re going to remember this week, so you want them to win because you don’t want them to go out on the wrong note. For me personally, I’m hoping we have five more weeks left, so I’m not really sitting around thinking about any endings, to be honest with you.
Where does Jaime rank as a player you’ve coached?
For me? Oh, he’s near the top.
Near the top?
Oh, yeah. Oh, absolutely. I’ve had some great four-year players that have played for me of great people, great production, you know, a combination—Sean Kilpatrick at Cincinnati, who scored over 2,000 points there, Gary Clark, his senior year, a great player there, he won player of the year, defensive player of the year and sportsman of the year his senior year. Those are two of the guys that come to mind, just great four-year players, just unbelievably productive that played four for me. You know, he’s right there.
Things you’re looking to shore up basketball-wise before the NCAA tournament?
Well, you’re always trying to develop, so for me you’ve got offense, defense, rebounding and you also have special situations. I’ve been waiting on one of you guys to come in here with the analytics stuff, especially the younger guys, they’re reading all that stuff, so we’re No. 1 in the country in baseline defense, special situations, top 10 in baseline offense, so I always tell the guys, you have to have talent or you’re not in the conversation but there’s a reason if you’re 25-4 and you win the league, there’s a reason—we lead the league in turnover margin by far, we lead the league in scoring defense, you go down the line of there’s a reason you’re winning. You know, our offensive rebounding percentage, we lead the league in. So it’s not just because we wear UCLA jerseys of we’ve got Jaime Jaquez on our team. You know, you have to have all that stuff, it’s really hard to win a conference and to close it out early, so you’ve got to try to always get better in certain areas, so for us it’s everything because you’ve got to defend different types of teams, so whether it’s being able to be good in our press when we need it, you know, different parts of our defense that can improve, obviously offensive execution can improve.
Well, obviously. Absolutely. Free throws is an interesting one because it’s individual, it’s not a team thing at all, so you’ve got to work with guys individually, which we do. All of us, when practice is over, every coach is working with guys individually.
Does Adem have more of an arc on free throws? Did they go in more?
It’s because I took over coaching Adem’s free throws last week—I’m just kidding. Yeah, look, hopefully he can continue that. We did make some adjustments, some minor stuff, tried to get less movement. I alluded to those guys and none of them have any idea what I’m talking about, but I alluded to golf—you’ve got to shorten your putting stroke, you’ve got too much going on, so we tried to shorten his stroke a little bit. Mac didn’t get to shoot any but we’ve been working hard with him as well. Jaime and Jaylen tend to come out of their dribble firing without finding their target, so you’ve got to take your time, be able to do the same thing every time. Tyger’s the best at it, that’s why his percentage is so high.
How much do you concur with coach Howland that you’ve got to get the No. 1 seed in the West?
Well, I would defer to him since he’s had it and I haven’t. I do know that travel is an issue and I’ve made one Final Four and took one flight to get there—it’s a trick question. You know, where last year we had to play a team on the East Coast in the Eastern time zone. I don’t know, to be honest, look, everybody says it, common sense would tell you you’re going to have more fans if you travel less. I’m a believer in we should have beaten North Carolina if we had played better defensively—I don’t care where the game was at. But I guess you’ve got to try to get every advantage on your side. And it’s easier for you guys.
Relationship with Howland?
He tried to hire me when he got the Pitt job and Sonny Vaccaro recommended me to him, I was a young guy at Cincinnati, and I told Sonny, ‘You’re trying to help Ben Howland’ and he said, ‘Yeah, I’m very close with him’ and I said, ‘Well, how about let’s try to help Mick Cronin’ and he goes, ‘Yeah, you should stay with coach Huggins.’ And then he said, ‘All right, we’ve got to get a good assistant for Ben, so we talked about guys that coach Howland [should hire] and then at some point we start sitting together at games, so both of our relationship with Sonny. When I was at Cincinnati and I got that job, it wasn’t like I was going to beat him for recruits, so like if you and I recruiting the same guy, we’re probably sitting with each other in the summer, so it wasn’t like I was going to out-recruit him at UCLA when I was rebuilding in Cincinnati, so I don’t know, Ben’s a no-nonsense guy, he’s my type of guy.
There’s a trust factor between you two?
Oh, yeah. I mean, I talked to him about the job here before I took it, I asked his advice, and then obviously after I got it about a lot of different things—staff and many other things.
Hear from him after you won the title?
Oh, yeah. He said you’ve got to win the next two and get the one seed in the West. You know him, now, he gets fixated on one thing.
Press has been used more this year – has it been successful?
How does it impact your halfcourt defense?
Well it’s hard, when you do press it’s hard to get, sometimes you’re going to have matchups when you get back to your man to man, you don’t have the right matchups, you have to just get the closest guy to you, so you have to live with that., the yin and yang of we want to slow them down or we want to mess with them with our pressure, but when they break it we’re probably not going to have the matchups or at least all the matchups you would want in man to man, so you have to weigh that and I’m always thinking ahead, look, Tyger is small and he’s not as good on the ball as Dylan and Jaylen, Will, those guys are better toward the front of it, even Abramo in practice, Sebastian Mack’s a tough, 6-foot-2 or 3 on-the-ball guy, so I’d love to be able to have all of our guards be able to do it because I know how disruptive it can be, but you’ve got to play to your personnel at times, so you see us putting Tyger in the second line a lot, you’ve got to save his energy for offense. Other guys are just more effective on the front of it.
Do the kids know the urgency of the last two games?
I would hope so, you know, but it goes back to the beginning of this, my paranoia never ends, so you just worry about, we’ve been on such a grind and a run to get to where we’ve gotten to that they understand we’re not there yet, where everybody else is, I know the ‘Congratulations, you won the Pac-12’ because I got all that stuff, I know they’re getting all that stuff, so it’s a concern. They know, but Indiana knew that Iowa was a good team and they had to come out to play last night but they couldn’t get their emotional gas tank back after their Purdue win. So sometimes people talk about all this stuff nationally and strength of schedule and this and that, like Houston’s in the American, I don’t know who they’re playing, it is hard to win all the time—really, really hard; I don’t care who you’re playing, so because of the emotional gas tank factor and people are so fired up to play against you, so it’s really, really hard. So we’ve been able to do it but we’ve got two more.