O’Neil: UCLA and Mick Cronin show Kentucky what toughness is


NEW YORK — Look at Mick Cronin. Does he scream Los Angeles? Lacking the Southern California tan, boiled- and pent-up energy, always looks ready to burst. Sure, he’s dressed up with snazzier suits since relocating and has taken nicely to the West Coast lifestyle. He’s talking about grilling on Christmas, for heaven’s sake.

But the grind is in his DNA. It’s how he was raised by his father, Hep. His coaching mentors, Bob Huggins and Rick Pitino, made sure he knew that coaching basketball meant a life of suffering, of a constant search for the impossible dream of a perfect game. Cronin cut his head-coaching teeth at Murray State and Cincinnati, places that do not exactly scream Easy Street.

So when the naysayers whispered behind his back, saying look at his numbers, how they tilt toward defense, that his UCLA style was not L.A., they weren’t lying. He is not against offense. Putting the ball in the basket remains the goal, after all. But he’s not interested in pretty ball at the expense of stopping someone.

But if that’s the best the naysayers could offer, that was the sum of their negative recruiting? Have at it. Because look at Mick Cronin — more, look at UCLA — now. The Bruins are No. 4 in the NET, No. 6 in KenPom and No. 16 in the nation. They just threw everything but the coaching staff at Oscar Tshiebwe, pretty much daring Kentucky’s other players to beat them. And it worked, worked to the tune of a 63-53 win in which Tshiebwe had a frustrating eight points, the Wildcats shot 32 percent, turned the ball over 18 times, and the nation’s 17th-best rebounding team got out-boarded 43-42.

It worked because the alleged pretty boys of UCLA grinded, and Kentucky didn’t.

“I was kind of mean the last two days in practice,’’ Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “Because I knew that’s what we needed to win this game.’’

The difference is that’s what Cronin believes you need to win every game, that defense and toughness aren’t something you go to like a secret weapon pulled out in an emergency. It has to be a constant.

Without going into detail about what he’s doing, he talks about what he does. Drills down on the game plan, harbors on the scout. Not exactly reinventing the coaching wheel, but it’s an approach that his players — or at least the caliber of players he can now recruit — are less accustomed to. It is unfair to paint with a broad brush. Not every high-level recruit is allergic to defense, but most are used to getting by on their skills. Being better than everyone else is a nice advantage … until you get to college and you’re not better than everyone anymore. Cronin is delighted at the caliber of players he’s coaching — Jaime Jaquez and Tyger Campbell didn’t make his Cincinnati wish list — but he coaches them the same as he did his guys at Murray State.

It took some getting used to and some time to get the buy-in. And it’s not entirely a sell just yet. Look at the arc of this year’s Bruins team — back-to-back losses in Las Vegas against the only real high-caliber opponents they played. Gave up 79 to Illinois and 80 to Baylor. That is not what Cronin had in mind.

“Early on, it’s not that we were selfish,’’ he said. “But sometimes there’s confidence in the talent, like we’re going to win games because we’ve got these great players. That doesn’t work. You’ve got to be able to defend the other team.’’

Cronin has delivered that message a lot since Vegas. “Gotta eat your vegetables,’’ he said with a shrug of his shoulders. The result: Stanford’s 66 points rank as the most anyone has scored against UCLA since. In this past week, during an East Coast swing that, come 2024, will be better known as a Big Ten road trip, UCLA pulverized Maryland, allowing just 60 points in a 27-point win, and held Kentucky to 53, 15 points below its average.

“It’s just a mental thing,’’ Jaquez said. “You can say you’re bought in, but doing it is a lot different. The effort is always there, but it’s where you are on the floor, locking in. That’s the difference. Those losses in Vegas just put an edge on our shoulder. We had a lot to prove on this trip.”

Defending Kentucky is not necessarily complicated. That doesn’t mean it’s easy. Cronin rightly hedged that his disruptive guards could make a mess of the Wildcat backcourt — Sahvir Wheeler had six turnovers — and figured Jaquez would be a matchup nightmare for the Cats (his 19 points would prove, again, Cronin was right).

But the big issue is the big issue — stopping Tshiebwe. So Cronin made that priority one through four. “Triple-teamed him sometimes,” Lance Ware said with a shake of his head. The result appeared in ways that no one saw coming, like Mac Etienne blocking Tshiebwe’s shot and freshman Adem Bona frustrating him into a kick-out instead of any easy put-back.

Tshiebwe did what he does — he vacuumed up 16 rebounds — but he couldn’t do anything with it. A mystified Calipari lamented that somehow his Cats had 21 offensive boards and just nine second-chance points.

“That means you’re like a few feet from the basket,’’ he said.

Since physics doesn’t make sense, the only thing that does is fortitude — intestinal, mental, all of it.

And UCLA, the pretty team, has it. Go ahead and criticize the Bruins for it. They dare you.

(Photo: Julia Nikhinson / Associated Press)


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