When he was hired prior to last season, there was skepticism and uncertainty about how or even if Mick Cronin’s style at Cincinnati would play at UCLA. His campaign got off to a poor start with losses to Hofstra and Cal-State Fullerton before Christmas a year ago.
By the end of the year, however, the Bruins were playing arguably the best basketball in the Pac-12. They have continued that momentum into this season. Less than two years into the hire, it’s time to admit that the powers that be at UCLA were right. Right now UCLA is the best team in the conference.
In February of last year, things changed for the Bruins. Since the loss to Arizona State on Feb. 6, they have gone 15-3 and currently sit atop the Pac-12 at 5-0 after beating Arizona on Saturday night.
The biggest thing that changed for UCLA wasn’t the fact that they began to buy into Cronin’s defensive philosophies. They were always good defensively. It was that they began to learn how to play a more offensive game while maintaining that defensive intensity.
This season, nearly every offensive category is up over last year for UCLA. Their 76.4 points per game are 6.5 more than the 69.9 they scored last season. They’re doing it while shooting three percentage points higher from the field and 4.4 percentage points higher from beyond the arc.
Their turnovers are down and their assists have skyrocketed to 14.9 per game compared to the 12.9 they had last season. That is another reason for their success. They take care of the basketball, ranking in the top-50 in the country in assist-to-turnover ratio at 1.32.
Another big reason for the Bruins’ continued success this season is that they are much more balanced offensively this season than they were a year ago.
Last season, guard Chris Smith was the only player to score in double figures. To this point in the season, they have five such players with another averaging 9.9, led by Smith and sophomore guard Jaime Jacquez, Jr. who are averaging 12.6 and 12.8 respectively.
Getting Johnny Juzang eligible this season after transferring from Kentucky has been big, and watching sophomore Tyger Campbell grow as a leader on and off the floor has given Cronin a second pair of eyes during the action.
Campbell has been absolutely outstanding with the ball, dishing out 6.5 assists per game, which is No. 14 in the country. He also has a 3.79 assist-to-turnover ratio and has committed only 19 turnovers on the year.
The UCLA frontcourt is anchored by a pair of juniors, Cody Riley and Jalen Hill who along with fellow junior Jules Bernard pull in 11.2 rebounds per game and have poured in 21.5 points per contest. That balance has allowed UCLA to be led in scoring by four different players in 11 games. They also have had five different leaders in rebounding in their 11 contests.
I’m not saying UCLA is a Final Four team or even a Sweet Sixteen team. But after what many considered a questionable hire at the time, it has taken less than two full seasons for Cronin to make believers out of his players. As for doubters about whether his style would work in Westwood, it unequivocally does. And now, at least in my opinion, the UCLA Bruins are the best team in the Pac-12.