Ok, so that’s a misleading headline; in a game where UCLA spent the entirety chasing after the Cal Berkeley Golden Bears of all teams, finding interesting things to talk about was always going to be a challenge. And yet, I found some things to point out, so here’s a list of them before I go scream into a pillow for a bit.
Let’s address something that I’ve been seeing in the comments before anything else: the idea that Cronin bullies his players and throws them under the bus at every given opportunity. I am going to assume a lot of this has to do with the fact that the team is losing games currently that they should not be, and thus there is a lot of nitpicking of the head coach for any real or perceived slights. That said: no, he is not bullying the players, get that out of your head and stop being obtuse. Nothing Mick Cronin is saying this year is any different than what he has said in years past while at UCLA; the only difference is the team has been awful and has not responded in the way past teams have. A lot of coaches use the media as a tool to talk to their players, and a lot of championship-winning basketball coaches have been demonstrative on the sidelines. None of this is disqualifying of Cronin as a coach for UCLA, and frankly, I’m annoyed that I have to even discuss this.
To that end, let’s also quickly discuss recruiting, and this weird idea that Mick Cronin cannot recruit. Uh, guys, who recruited Amari Bailey? And Jaylen Clark? And even Johnny Juzang, who was the knockdown shooter that people say Cronin is incapable of recruiting. Cronin is capable of recruiting very well, the problem is the game changed this past year and Cronin tried to zag instead of zig. We need to be clear-eyed about a few things: UCLA did not miss out on recruits because Cronin is a bad recruiter, but rather because UCLA is not operating with the resources of other schools and thus missed out on several impact recruits because they were unable to throw the NIL bag at them the way anyone else was able to. UCLA’s NIL operation is not at the level where they can throw million-dollar deals at impact transfers, especially when they had to spend a chunk of their funds just to retain Adem Bona. And it’s hard to blame Cronin for the NIL issues - he’s constantly trying to promote the Men of Westwood to get people to donate. The logical thing that will happen is that Cronin leaves for Louisville, which has always been more than happy to play ball as far as paying for talent and will get a bunch of recruits that he wants and win a ton of games while naysayers throw up their hands and wonder why that happened.
That said, I alluded to how he zagged instead of zigged, and that’s about the influx of Euro players this year. The idea was sound enough in theory: UCLA would go heavy on bringing in a group of Euro players who have played at a professional level for a few years and are less interested in big NIL deals because they are looking for a place to develop, and in return those players would be able to keep UCLA afloat while some other players took longer to develop, creating a “rebuilding” year where UCLA was competitive but not expected to be nationally-relevant until the following year. Unfortunately, the Euro players have not nearly lived up to the billing, especially Aday Mara who was sold as a potential lottery pick due to his size and skill set. To be sure, Berke Buyuktuncel looks to be a good rotation piece, and Illane Fibleuil has some intriguing potential, but these guys were not ready to carry the load, and so Cronin went bust on his gamble. It happens, and I assume if Cronin stays the plan will be to go heavy on the transfer portal for this next year to supplement the developing players with actual veteran skill.
Ok, all that said, how about the game?
There was speculation after the Stanford game that Cronin was referring to Illane Fibleuil with some comments he made about players not doing what they’re supposed to do when put in the game, especially because Fibleuil was making a habit of entering games, immediately making a mistake, and then getting pulled. So it was encouraging to see Fibleuil enter this game and do the things he is supposed to do, and get rewarded with playing time as a result. It seems clear that the coaching staff does not expect Fibleuil to be an offensive threat but to simply make smart decisions on that end, instead focusing on defense. Outside of a bad offensive goaltending late in this game, that’s essentially what happened; Fibleuil was UCLA’s best defender and tied for the team lead in rebounds with six. That’s exactly what you want to see in these situations: a player responding to what his coach says with improved play, and now you hope he can continue to improve going forward.
Similarly, Adem Bona just looks so much better these days. There was a point early in the second half where he just took over defensively, grabbing two steals for breakaway baskets, which is not something anyone should reasonably expect from their center. He also had a block late in the second half that made me gasp in the stands, as he jumped early yet somehow was quick enough to recover and jump a second time to block the shot. Bona likely looks much better if there were any other consistent offensive threats to keep double- and triple-teams off him, but all of the focus early in the season is paying off here.
On the flip side, I think we’re starting to see the moment where Lazar Stefanovic finally loses favor with Cronin. There’s simply no excuse for his play anymore, and I think Mick Cronin is recognizing that with how often he gave Stefanovic the hook. Stefanovic’s 25 minutes in this game was his least played all season, and it was completely deserved. If anything, I probably would have benched him the entirety of the second half after watching him get backdoored twice to start the half. I was thinking about a quote Cronin made back during his first season about how some guys were getting minutes that they did not deserve simply because the players behind him were not showing enough, and I think that’s what we’re getting with Stefanovic, a player that Cronin likely saw as a bench piece but is being forced to throw into the starting lineup just because he has experience. Hopefully, this is the start of the shift away from Stefanovic as a key cog going forward because UCLA is not good enough to have him sit around and occupy space on the floor.
Outside of Bona and Fibleuil, the UCLA defense was not great, and a lot of what we saw reminded me of Cronin’s first year when guys would overhelp on drives and allow open looks from outside as a result. UCLA lacks solid on-ball defenders at the moment, with too many guys gambling or being lackadaisical on the defensive end, thus compromising the defensive integrity. And it all leads to people being out of position for rebounds as well (UCLA was outrebounded 39-29, including a disgusting 14-6 offensive rebounding advantage). Defense is as much about effort as anything else and can take time for younger players to develop.
Offensively, I feel a lot of the issues came down to execution. Yes, this team struggles to shoot, but beyond that, the offense is getting open looks, but players are processing things too slow, or not throwing good passes, or not looking to make the extra pass and bogging things down again. I think we were spoiled a bit by how good players like Jaime Jaquez, Tyger Campbell, and others ended up developing because this team is not doing anything crazy different offensively than in years past beyond going inside a bit more often. Offensive development can come with time (see the UCLA women’s team as an example of players just getting better from their freshman to sophomore years) so this will be something to monitor going forward. The season is basically over anyway, you gotta take something from it.
As far as rotations are concerned, I think I’m at the point where I don’t care who is performing in practice and who is not. If there’s a major change I’d want to see from Cronin for the rest of the year, it’s that he gives some of the younger guys some run just to see what they can do. Aday Mara has not looked great this season, but I would much rather watch him struggle than watch more of Kenneth Nwuba at this point. That’s not a slight to Nwuba, who has been an exemplary Bruin and will always hold a special place in my heart for how he entered an Elite Eight game cold and ruined Hunter Dickenson’s draft stock for years, but I know who he is and what he provides at this point. Similarly, I would much rather watch Fibleuil and Brandon Williams get live rounds to work through their mistakes than watch Stefanovic be useless. And after six minutes of largely fine basketball, I’d like to see Jan Vide get more run just to see what he can do. These changes would not improve the team overnight, but we are past the point of believing this team can go on a major run to make the NCAA Tournament, and instead, we’re seeing what we have going into next year and what improvements can be made.
One last thing: I’ve been at pretty much every UCLA home game this year, and I have to say the UCLA in-game experience is just abysmal. There’s no energy, little engagement, and the whole thing just screams uncool in a way that can’t be helping attract either recruits or future donors from the students (who, as usual, are not catered to in the slightest, because why would the athletic department want to engender goodwill from current students and get them to donate in the future?). The amount of times my group found ourselves just browsing on our phones was borderline ridiculous, and I would hope someone in the athletic department can figure out some improvements here.
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Exactly how much did it cost to retain Bona? Is that public or leaked?
Down 9-0 after 5 minutes Pauley was dead all night... Andrews had a good 1st half and disappeared in the 2nd on offense while Mack and especially Bona stepped up and played hard to try to drag us back and yet - Cal's big, even with 4 fouls, had a double-double and out rebounded Bona by 10! And those three scored all but 11 of our 57 points... Ugh.
It did seem like Andrews, Mack, Bona, and some combination of 2 of Berke/B.Williams/Fibleuil were on the floor together whenever we did close the gap to 8 or once to 6... That might be the best rotation this group can muster even if none of them are an actual point guard or outside shooter - since we don't have any of those anyway... It's at least a stronger defensive rotation for a team that has to struggle so hard to score 60 without sacrificing whatever offensive potential this roster has.
Ben Bolch on 12/19/23: I asked Mick Cronin if a loss like this makes him question roster construction and he said, alluding to NIL challenges: "We did what we could do. Is your question, ‘Did we try to get older transfers?’ Absolutely. So did the Reds, but the Dodgers get them."
So you're saying that the NIL is why Bruins basketball is in the shape it's in? Then NIL has been detrimental to college athletics. "U$C" used to be a pejorative term, whereas now it's a compliment. Duke willing to pay megabucks for Bona? The entire landscape is one of mercenaries.
Hey you scribes: When was the last time the Bruins were swept at home? Opened Conference play 1-3?
The nil talk is just a lame excuse for all you cronin lovers. And the reason nobody goes to games is because they aren’t entertaining.
I fully disagree on recruiting but have spoken my piece as hominem… next year will be cronins last at ucla as his brand doesn’t fit what LA wants to watch and what LA players want to play. I won’t watch anymore this season as I’d rather watch something else more entertaining
Also, the fact that an at home, uninspiring loss, to Cal, is just being brushed off!?!? Would you all listen to what you’re saying? When’s the last time ucla fans started brushing off losses and expecting throw away seasons? I actually can’t remember… sad that the fan base has fallen this far.
The reason there are no donors is because there are a lot more fans out there like myself that won’t support a boring brand of basketball. We will spend our money on more entertaining options. For those that keep brushing me off, you should really get out of Westwood and watch some other college basketball teams play. There are much better options at this point in time
Dmitri, according to On3, Bona's current NIL valuation is $73,000 annually. It was recorded as high as $224,000 back in November 2023, why it's dipped $151,000 is not explained, but because On3's valuations are highly speculative, it probably isn't worth investigating. But getting to your report that the Men of Westwood dropped a big chunk of change on Bona is IMO very alarming.
Adem Bona is ranked #121 in NIL money among college basketball players. There are 84 high school boys basketball players and 20 NCAA women college basketball players earning more NIL money than Adem Bona. If the Men of Westwood emptied their coffers in order to keep Bona in school, the question that has to be asked is how much money does the Men of Westwood have in their collective? It can't be very much.
On3 shows Angel Reese makes $1.7 million dollars per year. Does the Men of Westwood have that type of funny money?
I first learned about the Men of Westwood back in late 2021 or early 2022. If I remember correctly, their mission at that time was to collect $100,000 from donors which was a trivial amount of money then, and in today's world, it's a tiny speck of dust. I could write 20 pages on why collectives, like the Men of Westwood, do not work because they provide no payback to their donors who need something in return (i.e. perks) to remain loyal donors. If you look at the SEC, their collectives work because they're tied to the schools and the alumni associations, and their donors receive kickbacks in the form of tickets, merchandise, opportunities to attend team events, etc. If and when the NCAA ever decides to get off their ass and put in the guard rails, these types of collective activities will be banned.
But in the meantime, UCLA, who is not going to entertain any notion of allowing those types of collectives to be created on their behalf, will remain behind the 8-ball. They are going to remain at the bottom, looking up, when it comes to using NIL money as the dangling carrot for recruiting purposes.
But the reality is, collectives, both legal or illegal, have a limited shelf life because the NIL has already fallen under the control of major corporations and professional sports agencies. We're already seeing Nike, Gatorade, Adidas, Underarmour, Klutch Sports, Roc Nation, Creative Artists, Lee Steinberg, Drew Rosenhaus, and all the other major players signing kids left and right, all the way down to the high school freshman level because they are the future faces of their businesses.
Mick Cronin and Martin Jarmond are merely spectators in this crazy situation. They can't get involved in anything that has to do with money. Any NIL deals has to occur outside of their official sphere of control. Certainly, there are some backroom deals that can be done, but impropriety is not tolerated at UCLA. If it does occur, we might as well change the school initials to USCLA.
You made the point that Cronin landed Juzang, Clark, Amari Bailey, and Peyton Watson, so yes, the man can indeed recruit domestically. But that was then. The NIL situation has changed so dramatically. When those guys committed to UCLA, the collectives were forming and corporations and sports agents were just beginning to explore the NIL market. Fast forward to now and we're seeing the collectives getting pushed aside by the big boys.
History tells us collectives usually get trampled by big business when there is big money to be made. But in the case of the Men of Westwood, how exactly do they expect the money to keep coming in from individual donors when the two most watched programs, football and basketball, are non-competitive? If the donors are fans of UCLA sports, they have to be fatigued by the losses, just like me.
Somebody, please tell Rich Paul we'll name a building on campus after him and the team will switch to New Balance shoes if he can bring us players.
I agree the NIL situation is out of control and has fundamentally changed the game. But I also agree that is a poor excuse for this team. We didn't lose to Kentucky and Purdue. We lost to Stanford and Cal. Does anyone think those programs are paying out big NIL money??
A big problem I see is UCLA as an institution, which let's face it has always been uber conservative, other than the Medical school, has become stuck in the past. The transfer portal and NIL have fundamentally changed how the NCAA functions, and the Athletic Department seems not to have noticed.
First and foremost, thank you as always for the time and dedication you give to each and every piece you write. I am a writer as well, and to do what you do without compensation is so appreciated.
Yes, I have made several comments about Cronin's behavior and I etand by them. It is likely true that this has always been Cronin but it seems to be much more pronounced this season due to the losses and to whom we are losing to as well.
With that said, I stand by my position that Cronin has degraded and treated his players in a way that remains unacceptable to me. And just because many other coaches use similar tactics, it does not make this behavior acceptable in my opinion. That's like saying, all the teachers call their students stupid so it is ok to do so.
We disagree and that is ok and this community remains great because we can disagree.
But... I am just counting the minutes or seconds until Evan attacks me again. But I digress as we at least have freedom of speech in the confines of this valued place. And I am truly grateful for that.
Go Bruins! 💙💛
Thank you for a very honest assessment of the team. These were my takeaways from attending last nights game. (Thank you Bruin Varsity Club for the invite). MC never called his players dumb or stupid. He said their aptitude was lacking, meaning their basketball IQ. I agree that MC should play all of freshmen to get more experience. Mara should get all of Nwuba’s minutes.
I was referring to the girl from Iowa who is the true reason women’s college basketball was entertaining for some last year. Again, not a women’s college basketball fan so don’t know her name, but she seems more like the reason women’s basketball was watched for all of last season, not just the tournament… I could be mistaken
Thanks for the writeup. Not very knowledgeable on NIL but know it's now the biggest factor. Maybe a more comprehensive post of how it works and where we stand is in the cards.
i'm hoping the transition for Stef going to being a 6th man or bench player happens sooner than later. he does see the writing on the wall and didn't shoot much this past game, hoping it keeps him on the court. if he leaves in the next portal, I don't think anyone would miss him. Andrews has been atrocious too but at least he has some potential. Stef has maxed out his ability.
Off topic, but. 2🏈24.
The line play, tackling, pursuit, speed and athleticism (at every position!).
I don't think that even the genius of Chip Kelly and the nutrient-dense training table are enough to meet the challenges that await. Call me crazy.
I'm breaking a new year resolution not to beat a dead horse. I'm encouraged to do so because the back-and-forth mostly has been civil to date. So.
Arizona lost 4 starters from last year's Pac12 Tournament winning team, and were rated #4 preseason.
UCLA similarly was viewed as an end of an era and a reload, yet were unranked preseason. CMC was insulted and enraged that his coaching and incoming talent were so dismissed.
But now he says of his coaching and of his recruited talent that it's a fallacy that freshmen improve over the course of their season (Oh? Really?), and that those very recruits have low game IQ.
My how his tune has changed.
Also, not to speak for Baskets, but speaking for Baskets and others, I think the objection to CMC is not the perceived pace of play (which has been highly efficient generally), but where and how the shots are created. It's like pulling teeth to score--so many lengthy droughts! This has been true of his offense for decades. And now we have the controversy of his conduct.
This season is a watershed year, and marks the decline of Bruin basketball
(and athletics). The advantages of a top public university and blue blood, great location, beautiful campus, and stellar weather are no longer valued by recruits. They are entirely uninterested in the Four Letters, but have their sights on only the 6 figures. UCLA cannot be a player unless the Administration recognizes the importance of NIL, or if NIL is modified with guardrails. Both scenarios are doubtful. What happened last recruiting round where CMC did not land a single of two dozen offers, and was forced into the international crapshoot will be the future of Bruin basketball, and possibly sports. It doesn't matter how good a recruiter is CMC. Argument over his style of coaching (which I have been a participant) is rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. What players have UCLA in their sights? Evan says that the best the Bruins can hope for next year is to get lucky in the portal. Some strategy. UCLA will be relegated to the dustbin of history not because the fans are undeserving, as DD has suggested, but because it is irrelevant. UCLA meets Loyola IL and USF. And it has ramifications beyond the current coaches. Future coaching prospects no longer will be enticed by having a backyard of talent. They will want a big purse to distribute the funds. The NIL has inverted the power dynamic between coach and player. I've lost interest in the NBA exactly because of that (and rule changes and officiating). Embrace mediocrity.
But returning to the moot discussion, holding teams to under 40% fg only then to have a chance of winning, and then praying that someone gets hot is not a blueprint for success.