UCLA coach Mick Cronin wasn't the school's first choice to replace Steve Alford in 2019. Or the second. Or the third. Or the fourth.
The Bruins, a blue-blood program with a record 11 men's NCAA Tournament banners hanging from the rafters in Westwood, California, pursued Tom Izzo (Michigan State), Jay Wright (Villanova) and Tony Bennett (Virginia). They made an offer to Tennessee coach Rick Barnes – who turned it down – before punching Cronin's digits.
But Cronin's hire was undoubtedly the right choice. This March Madness has proved that. The Bruins (22-9) will meet overall No. 1 seed Gonzaga (30-0) on Saturday in the nightcap of the men's Final Four (8:34 p.m. ET, CBS).
Criticism about his lack of NCAA Tournament success in 13 seasons at Cincinnati and the belief that the 49-year-old coach's grit-over-flair style wouldn't win over a hard-to-satisfy fanbase all seem like nonsense now.
Cronin has taken a No. 11 seeded bubble team from the First Four to the Final Four with the hardest path of any team still standing in Indianapolis. The Bruins have beaten five teams, including No. 1 seed Michigan in the Elite Eight and No. 2 seed Alabama in the Sweet 16 in overtime. Giant killer? Or is Cronin just tapping into the potential of a blue-blood program that needed a makeover in toughness?
UCLA coach Mick Cronin, center, celebrates with his team after an Elite 8 win against Michigan in the NCAA men's college basketball tournament. (Photo: Michael Conroy, AP)
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“My goal is to turn this into a winning program, always competing for (Pac-12) conference championships and then winning national championships," Cronin told USA TODAY Sports in 2019.
"April 9th, 2019, I told you, I spell fun W-I-N," Cronin said Tuesday. "You have to find a way to win and these guys are having the most fun they have ever had in their life back in that locker room because they won. I told them I was going to teach them how to win."
Alford hauled in top-five recruiting classes and got UCLA to three Sweet 16s in his five-plus seasons. Cronin, meanwhile, took this year's team to the Final Four despite losing second-leading scorer Chris Smith eight games into the season and losing five-star recruit Daishen Nix at the last minute to the NBA's G-League.
UCLA is arguably the most high-pressure job in the sport, with John Wooden's 10 national championships and legacy hanging over any coach who dare takes on the job. Cronin's mindset: Bring it on.
The fiery Cronin has re-branded a blue-blood program to be a blue-collar group of fighters who play with a grit and tenacity that he fosters within the program. This year's UCLA squad has discipline (14-0 when it commits 10 or fewer turnovers), a smothering defense (limiting Michigan to 49 points), and a drive to out-hustle opponents (taking charges and diving on the floor for loose balls in all five NCAA tournament victories).
Cronin told reporters over the weekend about getting his players to buy in when he came to UCLA: "You have to demand so much but I give the kids credit because there’s already 1,000 people in the transfer portal. It’s hard to dig in and deal with a short Irishman telling you to get in a defensive stance."
UCLA was down by 17 points in a First Four game against Michigan State – then came back. This is a team that's playing with resiliency and an uncanny chip on its shoulder. Not like a program that has 11 championships.
The Bruins didn't quit when top player Johnny Juzang fouled out in the game against Alabama, or when the Crimson Tide nailed a buzzer-beater to force overtime in the Sweet 16. Instead they turned it up a notch in overtime to pull away. They weren't fazed against No. 1 seed Michigan and Juzang kept scoring at will, despite being hampered by an injured ankle. And no one should expect them to shrink from Gonzaga, which is trying to become the first men's team since Indiana in 1976 to go unbeaten.
This UCLA team has a new identity and Cronin's fingerprints are all over it.
Follow college basketball reporter Scott Gleeson on Twitter @ScottMGleeson.
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