UCLA men’s basketball coach Mick Cronin speaks to the media before Monday morning’s practice session at the Mo Austin Basketball Center. Cronin talked about his team’s cooking Friday, welcoming Ben Howland back to Westwood, the status of Mac Etienne and Will McClendon, where he thinks the team is headed heading into the season and what he expects from the development of a freshman roster.
I saw you cooking the other day, what did you cook?
Trying to cook up some wins. Oh, you’re talking about the hamburgers. A guy who was long – grilling for the team and the next thing you know I have Alex is eating, every one of his assistants is eating. So it was about 80 burgers. I wasn’t able to make them quickly. A guy like Adem Bona, he makes two burgers at once, they’re not like you and me. So, no, it was great, we have a new grill in the back.
So this was here?
Oh yes, it was here. Yeah, so few wrinkles, something different for the guys on Friday, grill coach. Nothing like a fresh burger, fresh dog, fresh sausage, you know? We’re not going to let Coach Savino do the cooking.
Pasta for him?
Yes, we still are – he claims he can make his own sauce, but I don’t know about that. He’s yet to do it for me, let’s leave it at that. Coach Ivo says he’s good with lamb chops, but we don’t believe that here.
Coach Howland visited?
Oh yeah, he looks great. See, what I’ve learned is that when you retire, you look stress-free. He seems to be in excellent health, great spirits, enjoying Santa Barbara, so good for him. It’s great to have him back, you know? Actually, he and I are way back, so when he got the job here and—as I’ve been telling you forever, I was going to be here a lot, recruiting and friends and whatnot—but when he got the job, I was going to stay , He made sure I stayed up watching his games. Because, you know, we’re friends, so that’s one thing. I was at the Memphis game, the Final Four, I actually sat with some people from UCLA, was there support for him, whatever year it was, maybe ’08? Yeah, so it was great. He had great words of advice for the team, words of wisdom for the team as well.
Should I give him a jacket?
Oh, yes, yes. These jackets are hard to come by, Doug Erickson doesn’t pull off these jackets for everyone. They are locked away in a safe somewhere. Doug keeps them where all his wood stuff is locked away. It’s hard to get one of those, he won’t even let me give them away. Doug’s seniority, so the varsity letter Woodjacket can only get, you have to be something. I don’t know, you’d have to ask Doug about the criteria for that.
Close to ready for the season, a few days after the show?
I mean, no one ever – coaches, we’re all paranoid, you never feel like you’re ready. But as I always tell you guys, this is a marathon, not a sprint. College basketball is for March, not November. The boys are ready, I know that. Pre-season training is the hardest part of the year. It’s a lot of teaching, especially when you have eight freshmen. You know, you get to the games, kids, they have to start playing, they don’t want to sit here. Coaches love practice, you know? You don’t get any losses in practice and you love to teach. Games become more strategy and stress.
Do you have a starting lineup for the exhibition?
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Um, you know me, I’d never say, so we’ll see. Knock on wood no one skips class or does anything stupid so you see.
Adem is back and is he ok?
I expect him to play on Wednesday.
Still learning something new or surprising yourself every day?
Yeah, I mean, I don’t put a lot of stock in – when you’re training, different guys look good at different times. You know, some guys, in 3-on-3, if you’re a super fast guy, you can dominate a 3-on-3 practice. But we’re working on our defense, it’s harder to play 3-on-3 defense. So you might look great offensively in this drill, but 5-on-5 is a different story. Now you have to work in smaller spaces, make more reads, it’s not just about your 1v1 quickness. So I’d say the bigger question would be yes. We will have to, as a team, learn a lot as the season goes on because we have new guys. I would say, as I have with this team, that where we start shouldn’t be anywhere we end up if we can get healthy. And I say that mostly because you have freshmen playing big roles and you also have two in Mac and Will coming off injuries. So, you know, I would expect that you know by February that their injuries are nothing, they’re not rusty. They’ll play before that, but how long does it take for them to get their confidence back, to dust themselves off, you know, all that stuff. And freshmen get minutes where they have experience. So we’re a very different team than the last few years as far as that piece because we have a lot of guys that are going to be very talented guys, but those two guys might be big. I would say right now, our starting five is elite, but we need those guys — especially those two guys that we need on our bench.
Any progressions you have in mind for freshmen to set the pace of the game for them?
Here’s what I know, here’s what I know. No case is the same, no case is the same. Because children learn at their own pace, they adjust at their own pace. They too, it can depend on how many minutes one gets. You know, even more — if you can defend and rebound and not turn the ball over, you’re going to get more minutes. Therefore, then your attack will improve because you are there on the floor. It’s hard to get minutes if you get beat for a break every time I let you go. So it’s so diverse. As Tiger and Jaime played almost the entire game as freshmen. Other boys struggled. It depends on the team you’re on. There are simply too many variables to put a stamp on “Freshmen need 10 games.” It just depends, you know? We beat San Diego State, Amari Bailey looked like — coach Dutcher told me he didn’t catch bad shots. Most McDonald’s Americans don’t play defense or shoot because people tell them that’s how they have to play to get drafted, but he knows this isn’t basketball. He’s a guy who knows basketball, a very intelligent guy. So, his floor game – but that’s why he’s an aberration, like he gets it. He understands that you can play great and have eight points, eight assists, eight rebounds. Yes, but most kids don’t. Their entire self-worth depends on how many points they score, not how many they give up. So we’ll see, everything will be different, I just think so many of them will be at different paces and certain levels. But I do know this – you have to have a bench, back to the original. And Will and Mack, they’re not freshmen, they’re redshirt freshmen, so getting them healthy is going to be very important to this team long-term, to how we want to look in March.
Will and Mac will be able to go to the exhibition?
Not Wednesday. Mac is training live, Will is away right now. So Mac is ahead of Will. But Mac won’t be playing on Wednesday.
Is this the best defense you’ve had at UCLA?
Well no. Too many freshmen. It’s hard to be great defensively with freshmen, but that’s going to be our goal – to be that way. You know, you have to try every day. Coach Dutcher and I blame the assistants for the fight. You know, we’re supposed to be these defensive gurus and it’s like 89-87 or something. Like, what were you thinking, how does this happen? So I don’t know. But we sure are trying. Again, how do you get there? And with this team, you have different guys in the middle. How you play defense, what’s your best chance to step up and be a great defensive team, you know, your coverages – low post, one on one, low post trap, the way you play the pick and roll, what are your strengths, what you have to hide, you know, a big part of coaching is being able to hide defensive weaknesses, so we’re learning, we’re not sure about all that yet, so I think it’s going to be a work in progress. Also, development again, our bench, great teams, they’re weaker or better to say, the guys who play, there’s no defensive breakdown, you don’t have to put a man, it’s a responsibility because you We’re talking about it’s whether you’re a top 10 team beating another top 10. So anyway, if you’re playing lower opponents, you’re not going to get exposure.
Are any of the freshmen ahead of schedule in this aspect?
It depends. The difference is that the fan schedule, your schedule, and my schedule are never aligned, right? The society we live in today, everybody wants a schedule where we go out and look like the ’95 Bruins played in Seattle on Wednesday night, but that’s not going to happen. One thing I’ve been trying to talk about with the guys that are my friends in the business because I haven’t had, I mean, Tiger and those guys have played — and trying to take advantage of Tiger and Jaime when they started as freshmen is , how to facilitate them? Because as much as you work on things every day with them, it’s not second nature to them, so the two things we try to do is demand our older guys, they haven’t played with freshmen, Tiger and Jaime hasn’t played with freshmen so they have to be vocal and help them at all times – that’s something new for this team. Second, how to make it easy for the freshmen – as easy as possible I should say, so focus on “Guard the ball as well as possible, we’ll cover you or replace you if you get lost or run into complex plays, but don’t shy away from the dribble and box. Now I know that sounds very simple, but it’s not. Because trying to teach them how to keep eight million plays is hard. You know, those are things that take years to become second nature, so take care of the ball and keep the ball and play with some physicality, so it’s up to the older guys and the coaches to make it as easy as possible. as believable as possible.
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