INDIANAPOLIS — Even Mick Cronin’s father wasn’t sure UCLA was the right fit for his son.
“I was worried about it,” Hep Cronin told me.
Cronin is a midwestern guy, all about grit and toughness. His father, Hep, was a high school coach in Cincinnati, who also worked as a teacher, baseball scout and even staff member at the local race track during the summer. As for Mick Cronin’s college coaching career, he started as a video coordinator under Bob Huggins, joined Rick Pitino’s staff at Louisville and then worked at Murray State and Cincinnati as a head coach.
Cronin’s a grinder, and after UCLA failed to land either Kentucky’s John Calipari or Virginia’s Tony Bennett, they tried with TCU’s Jamie Dixon and Tennessee’s Rick Barnes. When that didn’t work, the Bruins turned to Cronin, even though it seemed like trying to insert a round peg into a square hole.
Sure, the guy can coach. He’d rebuilt Cincinnati and taken the Bearcats to the NCAA Tournament in each of his last nine seasons.
But Cronin in Westwood with soft West Coast guys?
“The way he plays, he has had to adjust,” Hep said. “You can’t win games 58-55 out there. You gotta let them play some. They don’t have to fire it up and down, but you gotta shoot for 70. You can’t win 55-50, can’t be 21-18 at half every game.”
Now in his second season with the Bruins, Cronin has definitely “let them play.” The Bruins scored 86 in their First Four win over Michigan State, put up 73 in their victory over BYU and had 88 in Sunday’s win over Alabama in the Sweet 16.
But it was fitting that Tuesday night’s upset over top-seeded Michigan delivered vintage Cronin. UCLA shot just 38.9 percent from the field, was 3-of-13 from beyond the arc and managed to put just 51 points on the board.
The Bruins came through with their defense. Michigan, one of the top offensive teams in the country, managed just 49 points and didn’t score on their final eight possessions.
“We won it on the defensive end,” Cronin said after the game. “We didn’t foul. We didn’t give up a layup. We forced shots over us down the stretch and that was the whole key. We forced shots over us.”
Cronin’s UCLA Bruins became just the second team in history to go from the First Four to the Final Four, and now they’ve earned a date with the No. 1 team in the country, Gonzaga, on Saturday.
This Final Four appearance, the program’s first since Ben Howland took the Bruins to three consecutive from 2006-08, is nearly as improbable as it gets.
Cronin didn’t even see his players for six months due to California’s COVID-19 restrictions throughout the summer. Then the developmental NBA G League Ignite basically came in and swiped his top recruit, point guard Daishen Nix, at the eleventh hour after he’d already signed with the Bruins. Chris Smith, the team’s leading returning scorer, suffered a season-ending knee injury at the end of December and Jalen Hill left the team in February due to personal reasons.
“Nobody would have said, ‘You’re going to the Final Four.’ Let’s be honest,” Cronin said.
The Bruins will be heavy underdogs against the Zags. But that’s been the case the last two games against Alabama and Michigan. After losing four consecutive games before the NCAA Tournament started, there were many that didn’t even expect this group to receive an invite to the Big Dance.
UCLA found a way.
It was Kentucky transfer Johnny Juzang – who transferred back home after a disappointing freshman season at Kentucky – who carried the Bruins with 28 points in the Elite Eight matchup. Jaime Jaquez and Jules Bernard both hit some clutch shots that helped take down No. 2 Alabama two nights earlier, and point guard Tyger Campbell has done a terrific job running the team, taking care of the ball and making key baskets when needed.
Sure, this team doesn’t have a Kareem or Walton. It’s a bunch of good players — not great ones.
But they have found their coach, and even Hep Cronin has bought in now.