One of Mick Cronin’s first decisions as the Bruins’ coach was to make some changes around the Mo Ostin Basketball Center.
Where banners of current players hung above the practice court last season, Cronin decided to put pyramid-shaped pennants of the program’s former first round picks.
“I had a fundamental issue with walking in this building and not seeing those guys on the wall,” Cronin said. “It’s just personal, it was an idea we came up with.”
UCLA men’s basketball started practice Sept. 27 and Cronin said both he and his players are already dying to play a real game. Junior guard Chris Smith said at practice Thursday that there has been a noticeable culture change with Cronin at the helm and that he was in support of the change in decoration.
“All these guys who are on the wall (did) something that I aspire to do,” Smith said. “So looking up and instead of seeing me, I see people that I aspire to be. So it is an inspiration.”
On the court, Smith said Cronin loved active, scrappy defensive play and deflections, something redshirt senior guard Prince Ali seconded. Cronin and the new coaching staff track deflections at every practice and Ali said the team’s goal was to notch 40 deflections every game this season.
While Ali said Cronin’s defensive philosophy would lead to wins, the media at Tuesday’s Pac-12 Men’s Basketball Media Day did not seem to agree. The annual media vote had UCLA projected to finish in 8th place, the lowest the team has been picked since the poll started in 1984.
Ali said he and his teammates brought up the poll a bit in their team group chat, but that it isn’t exactly weighing them down heading into the season.
“Do we think we should have been picked higher? Maybe,” Ali said. “But it doesn’t mean much, you know. We’re just here working hard every day, just trying to get better each and every day.”
The fifth-year guard did say he had a good time at Pac-12 Media Day, especially because he was able to get closer to Cronin. Ali wouldn’t divulge the funniest conversations he and redshirt senior forward Alex Olesinski had with Cronin on the trip, but the coach said it was a valuable experience for the three of them.
“Whenever you can spend time with guys away from the court, it’s great because they’re really bright guys, interesting guys,” Cronin said. “I didn’t know (Olesinski) spoke Polish – I don’t know how he’s going to be able to use that, unless he wants to be a translator at the consulate.”
Smith said he hasn’t been able to find time to hang out with Cronin outside of practice just yet, but the wing has been texting him since the day he was hired. But while Cronin and his current players haven’t had personal time together, the coach has been making the rounds with dozens of former Bruins.
Cronin sat down for lunch with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar just after he was hired, hosted an alumni cookout at his house over the summer and invited Ryan Hollins and Don MacLean to practice this week.
“We try to use all those guys as we can as a resource,” Cronin said. “I think it’s really important that college players understand that they’re part of something bigger than themselves. … It’s not just us, it’s all the guys who came before you, it’s all the people who support us and we represent a university – we’re not a club team.”
Early injuries, restrictions and comebacks
Redshirt freshman guard Tyger Campbell and forward Shareef O’Neal both missed all of the 2018-2019 season due to injury, but Cronin said Thursday they are both practicing without restrictions.
Before Campbell made his return in late August, Cronin said Ali and sophomore guard Jules Bernard had been running a lot of point for the Bruins in practice. But with Campbell back in the fold, Ali said he has been blown away by the young guard’s athleticism coming off an injury.
“For someone who just tore their ACL, I can’t believe he’s actually that fast,” Ali said. “I can’t really tell that he was hurt, so I think he’s been great. He’ll be a great addition.”
Sophomore guard David Singleton – who broke his foot in the 2019 Pac-12 tournament – was back in practice without a boot, but Cronin said he hasn’t been cleared for full-speed, full-contact drills yet.
Other than Singleton, however, Cronin said everyone else is practicing at 100%.