Joseph’s Diagnosis: With former men’s basketball stars gone, Mick Cronin faces his biggest test yet
UCLA men’s basketball coach Mick Cronin sits at the podium during a March Madness press conference. Cronin is entering his fifth season as the Bruins’ head coach. (Jeremy Chen/Daily Bruin senior staff)
Nov. 5, 2023 11:50 p.m.
Lucas Oil Stadium was the location.
April 3, 2021, the date.
No. 1 seed Gonzaga, the opponent.
UCLA men’s basketball was in the Final Four, and coach Mick Cronin was facing the biggest test of his career under the brightest lights.
And despite the miraculous half-court heave from Jalen Suggs that sent the Bruins home, the then-second-year coach passed with flying colors. He had pushed a motley crew from the First Four to the Final Four for just the second time in NCAA history.
But two and a half years have passed. The setting has changed. The opponent isn’t just one team, but the season ahead.
Cronin has a new test – and it’s the biggest one of his career.
The lights of the moment have all but gone out. Former guard/forward Jaime Jaquez Jr. took most with him when he was drafted No. 18 overall by the Miami Heat. Former guards Jaylen Clark and Amari Bailey shipped the rest to Minnesota and Charlotte, respectively.
With the exception of redshirt fifth-year forward/center Kenneth Nwuba, Cronin recruited the entirety of this roster. Ten of his 12 scholarship players are redshirt sophomores or younger, and the two presumed leaders of the team are in just their second season with the program.
Seven freshmen have joined the fray, bringing a plethora of raw talent but little of the discipline or polish that Jaquez or former guard Tyger Campbell possessed.
Cronin’s instructions are clear: mold his team into one that can contend for a national championship, with the capability to defend like Clark and score like Jaquez.
Fortunately, he’s well prepared for the test.
In fact, he’s never been more ready.
With a wealth of experience behind him, as well as a pair of Pac-12 Coach of the Year honors, Cronin has never been sharper. And now, he has the opportunity to coach a roster that is entirely his own. While Nwuba wasn’t recruited by Cronin himself, he is one of two holdovers from the Final Four run and has been a member of the team through the entirety of the Cronin era.
Jaquez and Campbell – remnants of Steve Alford’s recruiting success at UCLA – are gone, and sophomores forward/center Adem Bona and guard Dylan Andrews have begun to step up in their places. Seven freshmen and Utah transfer Lazar Stefanovic will round out the roster that lost its top-five scorers from last season.
He studied the team. He brought them together.
Now, it’s time to ace the exam.
Truth be told, the stakes aren’t as high as they were in past years. Expectations are lower without the big names of the past. The Bruins are on the bubble of a top-25 rank – a setting they haven’t been in since 2021.
But this is what Cronin has worked toward over the last four years: the chance to craft his own team and build them up with the defensive prowess that has become so commonly associated with his players.
Between his time at Cincinnati and UCLA, Cronin has quickly ascended to the annals of royalty among active coaches. His coronation, however, isn’t complete. A new era of UCLA men’s basketball is on the horizon, and this season is merely at its beginning.
The pencil is sharpened. The test has been distributed.
And when all is said and done April 8, Cronin might be the one nailing the exam.