UCLA fired former coach Steve Alford on New Year’s Eve and after a lengthy, winding and — at points — befuddling coaching search that resulted in Kentucky Coach John Calipari receiving a lifetime contract with the ‘Cats and Tennessee Coach Rick Barnes landing a new raise in Knoxville, the Bruins settled on Cincinnati Coach Mick Cronin.
Whether UCLA likes it or not, the road the school took to reach Cronin has an impact on how the ultimate destination is judged. Based on reports, Cronin was, at best, among the school’s second tier (read: fourth or fifth option) of candidates.
But that might even be generous.
The L.A. Times wrote in mid-March that Virginia Coach Tony Bennett, whose Cavaliers team cut down the nets in Minneapolis on Monday night, was “widely believed to be the school’s top target.”
So there may have been – and likely were – more names who declined the job opening beyond the publicly leaked names of Calipari, Barnes and TCU’s Jamie Dixon.
Dixon, by the way, reportedly fell through as a candidate due to a buyout in the neighborhood of $8 million and UCLA wasn’t willing to pay it in order to free the 53-year-old head coach, just like TCU wasn’t willing to lower his buyout to let the TCU alumnus walk after just three years back in Fort Worth as the Horned Frogs’ head coach.
That’s how UCLA landed Cronin, which – once again – is an important part of the story.
Cronin can win in Los Angeles. Let’s make that clear.
He has 365 wins as a Division I head coach, including 11 NCAA Tournament appearances in 16 years – the last 13 of which were spent at Cincinnati after three at Murray State.
But the questions for Cronin will be how, with whom and in what months does he win?
His last six teams at Cincinnati ranked 328th or worse nationally in tempo. That pace resembles Virginia and Wisconsin more than the Showtime Lakers.
Former UCLA Coach Ben Howland, who took the Bruins to three straight Final Fours in the 2000s, coached teams in Westwood that ranked between No. 163 and No. 298 in tempo from 2006 to 2012, so his teams played at a light jog compared to the crawl of the Cronin-era Bearcats.
“We will look for someone who plays a fun brand of basketball,” UCLA Athletic Director Dan Guerrero said in 2013 after Howland was fired, according to the L.A. Times. “We don’t want to bring in a coach who averages 50 points per game.”
Even though Howland’s final UCLA team hit the turn signal and got into the fast lane, playing at the 35th-fastest tempo nationally in 2013, when it won the Pac-12 regular season title, earned a No. 6 seed and won a game in the NCAA Tournament, he still got canned.
So while the timing of Cronin’s hire in Westwood, just hours after Virginia — which played at the slowest pace in the country last season — won the national title, should dismiss any notion that slow-paced, methodical teams with grinding defenses can’t win at the highest level, the brand of basketball at UCLA is an important criteria for the school and its fans by the admission of its own athletic director.
Cronin’s teams at Cincinnati were annually among the 25 best in the country in terms of defensive efficiency and offensive rebounding, including having the second-best defense in 2018, along with an offense that improved from No. 118 in terms of efficiency in 2013 to Nos. 98, 94, 70, 34, 49 and 42 in the six years since.
But shooting – from inside the arc, behind it or at the free throw line – was never a strength for the Bearcats. Hence, some conference wins last season with final scores of 52-49, 60-55 and 64-60.
Speaking of NCAA Tournament success, Cronin’s track record in March might be a bigger concern to UCLA fans than his teams’ pace of play. The issue hasn’t been getting there; like we said, he’s made the tournament in 11 of his 16 years as a head coach, including the last nine.
But Cronin’s record in the NCAA Tournament is just 6-11 with one Sweet 16 appearance. The Bearcats lost to No. 12 seed Harvard in the first round as a No. 5 seed in 2014 and No. 7 seed Nevada as a No. 2 seed in 2018, which were two especially disappointing losses for Cincinnati fans.
While UCLA only made the tournament in four of the six seasons that Alford coached the Bruins, they did make the Sweet 16 three times. While missing the tournament is unacceptable for UCLA fans, so are annual first-weekend exits.
If Alford’s NCAA Tournament track record at UCLA wasn’t enough, then neither would a repeat of Cronin’s tournament showings at Cincinnati.
Cronin’s first order of business at UCLA will be assembling a staff that can allow him to consistently land the high-level prospects that California offers. That’s something that Alford was able to do with the No. 6 recruiting class in 2018, No. 5 in 2017, No. 11 in 2016, No. 24 in 2015, No. 7 in 2014 and No. 12 in 2013, according to the 247Sports Composite rankings.
There were in-state, blue-chip recruits like Isaac Hamilton (2013), Thomas Welsh (2014), Aaron Holiday (2015), Lonzo Ball (2016), Jalen Hill (2017) and Shareef O’Neal (2018), who were complemented with other highly rated prospects from outside the state.
Of course, enrolling players of that caliber heightens expectations, which was part of Alford’s downfall and something that has caused even Calipari to face backlash at Kentucky, but hoping to develop three-star and junior college recruits, with maybe one four-star recruit per year, like Cronin successfully did at Cincinnati, probably isn’t a sustainable long-term approach in LA.
When comparing Cincinnati’s recruiting class rankings to UCLA’s since Alford was hired, the Bearcats’ highest-rated class (No. 26 in 2013) would’ve been the Bruins’ worst ranking in the last six years.
Keep in mind that Cincinnati has often had recruiting classes ranked in the 50s and 60s.
Identifying assistant coaches with West Coast roots or connections will be vital for the 47-year-old Cincinnati native who has spent his entire professional career coaching in Ohio or Kentucky.
There will also be a bigger spotlight on Cronin at UCLA, where an incident like him exchanging words with former Xavier player J.P. Macura in a post-game handshake line or during a game with official Teddy Valentine could more easily become national news stories.
There’s a reason he was the No. 12 seed in our most entertaining coaches bracket.
Cronin’s consistency, assuming it translates 2,000 miles west, will be a welcome sight for Bruins fans, but for a blue blood with a national-best 11 national championships, that alone isn’t enough.
In the last six seasons, since Alford was hired at UCLA, Cronin’s teams at Cincinnati averaged nearly 27 wins per season and won a combined four conference regular season or tournament titles.
Winning can resolve any questions about pace of play or roster composition, but Cronin will need to win more in March for this hire to be a successful one for a school and a fan base that dreamt of Bennett, flirted with Calipari and endured one of the longest, most public coaching searches in recent memory.