There are only a few truly blue blood programs in college basketball. And in 2024 there’s exactly one in the Pacific Time Zone. The UCLA Bruins are that level of royalty.
But in the fifth year of Mick Cronin’s tenure, they look far more like an also-ran than a marquee brand.
A 59-53 home loss to Stanford on Wednesday night dropped the Bruins to 6-8, 1-2 in the Pac-12. They fell from No. 68 to No. 89 in KenPom with the loss, and watching them play, that still feels generous. As a team they shoot 29.2% from three-point range, 312th in the country. They are 45.1% on two-point baskets which ranking 317th.
And following a recent history of underperforming and huge chokes in pressure spots, it’s time for the Bruins to take a serious look at their head coach, and whether his system is a fit for an elite brand that can recruit the best athletes.
Cronin’s first UCLA team was 19-12 in 2020 before Covid canceled the season. In 2021, a 17-9 Bruins squad that lost in the Pac-12 quarterfinals to Oregon State squeaked into the NCAA Tournament as a First Four participant.
In that First Four they needed legendary performances from two sophomores in Johnny Juzang and Jaime Jaquez Jr. to hold off Michigan State in 86-80 in overtime. Both were players that signed to play in Westwood by Steve Alford, Cronin’s then-fired predecessor. As was Tyger Campbell, eventually a three-time First Team All-Pac-12 performer.
The Bruins went on one of the more memorable NCAA Tournament runs ever, winning four more games to reach the Final Four before falling to Gonzaga in overtime via one of the most famous shots in Big Dance history.
They were just the second team to go from Dayton to the Final Four, joining VCU’s 2011 squad. Juzang scored 25 points or more in four of the five NCAA Tournament games while averaging just 15.2 shots per contest. It was a legendary run, and with all three key players returning, they seemed poised to be in the mix for another national championship.
After a 23-6 regular season against a somewhat soft schedule, they finished three games behind Arizona in the 2022 Pac-12 regular season.
They lead ‘Zona 53-41 with 17 minutes left in the Pac-12 Tournament final, but gave up a 15-2 run on the way to being outscored 49-38 after intermission. A Wildcats team led by Bennedict Mathurin and Azuolas Tubelis comfortably pulled away for the 84-76 win.
The resume earned an NCAA No. 4 seed, where in the Sweet 16 they led No. 1 North Carolina 64-61 with two minutes left. But a 12-2 run by the Tar Heels ended their season for good.
Juzang left for greener pastures, but Jaquez and Campbell returned to make UCLA one of the favorites to cut down the nets last season. The Bruins were 27-4 in the regular season, and Jaquez put the finishing touches on a resume that saw him drafted by the Miami Heat in June. He was the second-best player in college basketball according to KenPom behind only Purdue’s Zach Edey, deservedly made every All-American Team, and now might end up as NBA Rookie of The Year.
And while the Bruins finally got their first Pac-12 regular season title under Cronin, it made the next two losses that much more painful.
With a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament on the line, the Bruins led Arizona 58-56 in the Pac-12 Tournament final with 2:51 to play. They would score just one more point. They had the ball up one with under a minute remaining, with a win probability at 76.1%. But they didn’t get it done, and were a No. 2 seed instead.
That No. 1 seed would prove costly as in the West Regional semifinal, from the same T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas that has served as their Pac-12 Tournament House of Horrors, they blew it again. Up 54-42 on Gonzaga at the under-16 timeout, they were outscored 46-30 after halftime. They went from 12:32 to 1:15 of the second half without a field goal. They gave up a 20-3 run. And while Julian Strawther’s shot is what is remembered, they blew it long before he hit from the logo.
Of those four games above, I was at three of them in person, missing only the UNC loss. And quite frankly, you could feel the life being squeezed out of the team on the court in real time. I was in Cronin’s press conference post-game, and it was one of the more unprofessional displays I’ve seen from a college coach in any sport.
Cronin’s teams play with absolutely no freedom. He screams a lot. Screams at players. Screams at officials. Screams at his coaches. Screaming at anything because he appears to be wound so tight if he was covered in leather, he’d feel like a juiced baseball. With his hands awkwardly behind his back while the ball is in play, it looks like he’s fighting himself internally to not do something physical to somebody because of his frustration.
In his thirteen seasons at Cincinnati, no blue blood but certainly a well-respected college basketball brand, Cronin was 6-9 in the NCAA Tournament. He reached the Sweet 16 once. Over his last six seasons, the Bearcats averaged an offense that was 333rd in pace. There were 353 Division I schools.
No team in America smiles less than UCLA while on the floor. They simply react to orders to set a high ball screen, or run a cross screen to get a wing entry for an isolation post-up. The offense is so predictable and stagnant you could diagram every play with a pack of green army men on the whiteboard. And they look like college basketball at one of the biggest names in the sport couldn’t be more of a job.
Despite having some of the best players in the country the last three seasons, UCLA has finished 341, 277, and 235th in adjusted tempo. This season they’re back down to 324th. There are now 362 Division I schools.
While having successful programs such as Saint Mary’s and Virginia below you in pace shows you can win this way, why in God’s name are you doing it at freaking UCLA??
You can recruit five-star talent to Westwood, and those three key players from the 2021 Final Four showed they’ll stay even when the head coach is fired. That’s how strong the appeal of all those national championships and Pauley Pavilion can be.
But why are you trying to drag basketball back to the stone ages when the access to talent is so much stronger in Westwood? There are two five-stars on Cronin’s roster presently; sophomore forward Adem Bona (12.4 points, 7.1 rebounds), and Spanish freshman Aday Mara (who appears to be a project). But the rest of the roster is littered with four-star players with a great pedigree. Why not let them loose on the floor?
“Mick was never going to budge,” associate head coach Darren Savino told The Athletic last February. “He would refuse to change how it’s going to look.”
That might fly somewhere else, but this is UCLA. Where they only hang national championship banners, John Wooden’s Pyramid of Success is everywhere, etc. With apologies to Arizona, it’s also the only blue blood program for thousands of miles in any direction, and the SoCal prep scene is one of the best in America.
But what UCLA isn’t is good enough right now. And a stubborn coach without a track record of success that refuses to adjust his processes or system to let his players play isn’t helping.