August 1, 2021

DCTRS

Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

Hernández: Mick Cronin’s Bruins are putting on a show even if no one’s there

The statue of John Wooden that stands in front of Pauley Pavilion has its eyes permanently fixed on concrete stairs nearby that lead underground, the coach looking as if he’s wondering whether people will ever emerge again from Parking Lot 7. The crowd never comes.

The arena was empty again on Thursday afternoon, save for the cardboard cutouts in the 12 rows of bleachers behind the west basket that were once occupied by students.

UCLA nonetheless played as if the joint were packed, which is about as good a sign as any that the Bruins really have become a Mick Cronin team.

With a 91-61 demolition of Washington State, the Bruins are 6-0 in the Pac-12 for the first time since they won their first seven conference games in 1993-94.

A place in the Sweet 16 feels entirely realistic.

Regardless of whether anyone is watching, Cronin’s rebuilding of the program is on track.

As was the case last year in Cronin’s first season at UCLA, the Bruins are still a team without an elite player. Their top performer, Chris Smith, was ruled out for the season earlier this month after tearing a knee ligament. Their five-star recruit, Daishen Nix, never played a minute for them, as he went directly from high school to the G League.

Which doesn’t mean UCLA is the all-defense, no-offense team that it was last year.

These Bruins are still scrappy, but they can also score. UCLA has averaged 77.6 points per game, up from 69.5 last year.

“Great passing leads to great shooting,” Cronin said.

To Cronin’s point, the Bruins made 20 field goals in their 54-point first half against Washington State. They had 15 assists from eight players.

Johnny Juzang finished with 17 points and was one of five players to score 10 or more points. Tyger Campbell and Jaime Jaquez Jr. scored 16 each.

“It’s a blast,” Juzang said.

The Bruins have made 73.2% of their free throws this season, which is part of the reason why they are 5-0 in games decided by five or fewer points.

If anything, their concerns are on defense, an area in which Cronin’s teams typically excel.

Around this time last year, the Bruins were hovering around .500 and Cronin was saying his players had to learn to how to win games. Earlier this week, Cronin complimented his players on their improved resilience, but said defensive lapses resulted in them playing in some unnecessarily close games.

There were no such lapses Thursday. UCLA went into halftime with a 16-point lead. By holding the Cougars to 23 points in the second half, the Bruins ensured they wouldn’t be involved in another down-to-the-wire finish.

Over the final 20 minutes, the Bruins recorded seven steals and forced 10 turnovers against a solid Washington State team that has a 9-3 record.

It’s not lost on Cronin that his players have remained committed to his team-first approach while dealing with major disappointments.

After a slow start last season, the Bruins won nine of their last 11 games to place themselves in contention for the NCAA tournament berth. Before they played their first game of the Pac-12 tournament, college sports were shut down because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“You have teams that are playing well late in the year, they know they’re going to make the tournament and their excitement level is off the charts,” Cronin said. “They’re playing well and they can’t wait to dance in March and that was us.”

The devastated group returned as an improved team this year, only to not see and hear the excitement they are generating because of the ban on crowds.

“You’ve got to remember, these kids at the high level, this is their lifelong dream,” Cronin said. “Everything they’ve done is to play basketball on the big stage. So, it stinks for them. You’re walking out of that tunnel in Arizona and there’s no fans there, it stinks. But, man, I give them credit because they’ve been awesome.”

The band, pom-poms and eight-claps will have to wait for another day, maybe another season. At least when the fans return, they will have something to cheer about.