Mick Cronin came to UCLA with a reputation as a defensive scholar. The manager, who is known for making other teams uncomfortable, employed floor wipers and coaches as did his players as he had to wipe all the sweat and bandage all the knees injured from diving on the pitch.
The Bruins have not disappointed in Cronin’s first 3½ seasons, forcing a flurry of turnovers and routinely keeping their opponents well below their season-scoring averages.
The thing is, they could be just as good – if not better – on offense.
Ken Pomeroy, a leading expert on collegiate basketball analysis, ranked UCLA’s adjusted defensive efficiency at No. 10 in the country on the eve of the Bruins’ game against USC Thursday night at the Pauley Pavilion. your offense? That checked in at #7.
It’s nothing new for the manager whose teams have become a double threat. Since arriving at Westwood, every one of Cronin’s offenses had outpaced his defense, according to Pomeroy’s metric, and this season they’re essentially stuck in a dead heat.
“When I was in Cincinnati,” Cronin joked recently, referring to his previous coaching ban, “they called me into the clinics to talk about defense; Now I’m being called for insult.”
The opposite trend applies to Andy Enfield’s Trojans. Hailed as the architect of a high-flying “Dunk City” attack on Florida’s Gulf Coast, Enfield has built his recent USC teams largely on the strength of robust defenses.
The Trojans keep opponents at 38.2% shooting – a number that ranks 19th nationally – while averaging 5.7 blocks per game, which ranks 13th nationally.
That defense needs to be in full lockdown mode for USC (11-4 overall, 3-1 Pac-12) to beat the Bruins (13-2, 4-0) in an almost inevitable cross-town win over rivalry game the Trojans’ NCAA tournament hopes.
The challenge will be formidable against an offense that boasts the best ball movement of the Cronin era. Point guard Tyger Campbell leads a lineup full of willing passers, while top scorer Jaime Jaquez Jr. is as likely to pass the ball to a teammate as he is to put it in the basket strong.
In every game, the Bruins have committed fewer turnovers than their opponent, their plus-7.5 No. 3 turnover margin in the nation. Every time they throw a pass, they might have a team mantra in mind about turnover.
“You’re either soft or a bad player,” Cronin said of the adage he makes his players repeat. “Really good players don’t turn the ball around unless they’re lazy, they play, they make bad decisions, but when you’ve got the ball you have to be responsible for the whole team.”
Cronin said he wasn’t happy with his team’s offensive efficiency during his most recent trip as they adjusted to playing without freshman guard Amari Bailey due to ongoing discomfort in his left foot. Bailey is expected to sit out against the Trojans, but Cronin doesn’t expect to sit out for long.
The Bruins quashed a late nine-point deficit against Washington State last week by keeping the Cougars without a field goal in the final 7 minutes and 23 seconds while maximizing their own possession. UCLA made five of their last eight shots and threw up four free throws.
“We understand that you have to have good defense, you have to have good offense and part of that is taking care of the ball and getting great shots,” Jaquez said. “So on offense we try to move the ball and get the best shot possible and once that happens we have time to reset our defense. And I think that is a recipe for success.”
Defense has never let UCLA down during a 10-game winning streak that is the nation’s fourth-longest. The Bruins kept their opponents at 58.1 points and 29.1% shots from three-point range. Junior guard Jaylen Clark said communication about assignments has improved and the six newcomers to the rotation have learned proper positioning.
“It helps a lot when everyone can finally get under the system and know where they need to go,” Clark said. “We don’t necessarily have to pull and make sure someone is in the right place. All the younger guys already know ‘I have to be there’, if you know what I mean, so everything is going smoothly.”
The USC defense was also a savior for a team that had wildly faltering success with their three-pointers. In the four games in which they hit at least nine three-pointers — three wins plus a narrow loss to Wisconsin — the Trojans shot 46.7% versus 25.1% in every other game.
Redshirt junior Joshua Morgan has bolstered central defense by blocking 42 shots — 13 more than Isaiah Mobley, USC’s leader in that category, scored last season.
“They defend the rim really well,” Cronin said. “Since [Enfield’s] been here, it’s really hard to score against them around the basket.”
It seems that both coaches’ perceptions of the rivalry could change.
“He freaked out,” Cronin said of his USC colleague with a smile. “He’s doing defensive clinics now.”
https://www.latimes.com/sports/ucla/story/2023-01-04/la-sp-ucla-usc UCLA coach Mick Cronin’s offense on rise ahead of USC game