Riding a six-game conference winning streak, the Tennessee Volunteers find themselves in the thick of the at-large conversation. Since losing at home to Georgia in early February, the Vols have won three league road games and beaten Kentucky and Florida in Knoxville. And while one could argue (correctly) that the SEC isn’t particularly strong or deep, Tennessee has given itself a chance to participate in March Madness. Such a scenario would have been considered a stretch a month ago.
A similar streak helped Illinois overcome a 2-7 mark in the Big Ten. Without a major slip, the Illini are now a likely NCAA participant. A lot can change in two weeks.
Which brings us to Selection Sunday – now just over two weeks away.
Our latest bubble update finds teams moving both toward and away from the cutline. Besides the aforementioned Volunteers, here are some teams climbing the at-large ladder: Temple, Saint Mary’s, and California. Akron should be included too. The Zips beat Ohio for a second time Wednesday and have a clear path toward an outright Mid-American Conference title. That will add credibility to the Zips’ profile if they were to fall short in the MAC tournament.
Teams moving in the opposite direction include Arkansas, Charlotte, and Indiana State. The Sycamores have lost any momentum they once had and probably need to win the MVC tournament in St. Louis to reach the NCAA tournament. For now, they’ve been removed from the bubble.
One other Missouri Valley note: Both Creighton and Wichita State remain as “Should Be In” teams at the time of this update. However, both have slipped a bit of late and certainly aren’t locks. Saturday, they battle for the MVC title. The winner takes a significant step toward an NCAA bid as it’s hard to imagine the outright MVC champion being left out of the Field.
RPI and SOS data is credited to ESPN and is for games played through Wednesday, February 27.
UPDATED: Thursday, February 28
Total Spots (68): Number of teams in the Field.
Automatic Bids(31): None at this time
Projected Locks (20): Teams who project to have secured a spot in the NCAA Tournament.
Should Be In (16): These teams are in solid position to receive an at-large bid.
Bubble: (31): Teams projected to be under consideration for at-large selection.
Spots Available (11): Estimated number of openings after Automatic Bids, Locks, and Should Be Ins are considered.
RPI and SOS: RPI and SOS data are updated through games completed on Wednesday, February 27.
Locks: Butler, Saint Louis | Should Be In: VCU | Bubble: La Salle, Temple, Charlotte, Massachusetts, Xavier
Charlotte (18-9 | 6-7) | RPI: 63 | SOS: 97 | – Dayton handed Charlotte its third straight loss Wednesday. Unless the 49ers make a serious run in the A10 tourney, an NCAA bid now appears unlikely.
La Salle (19-7 | 9-4) | RPI: 35 | SOS: 73 | – The only thing lacking from La Salle’s resume at this point is a volume of quality wins. A one-point win over Butler and a road victory at VCU stand on their own. The Explorers’ other Top 100 wins are Villanova, Richmond and Saint Joseph’s. So it’s too early to move La Salle off the bubble. Assuming they can avoid a home upset in the next two (Duquesne, Geo Washington), the closing road trip to Saint Louis will tell us how much work – if any – is needed at the A10 tourney.
Massachusetts (17-9 | 7-6) | RPI: 57 | SOS: 67 | – UMass beat Dayton last weekend to stay alive in the bubble conversation. But the Minutemen have still lost 3 of 4 games. The next two are big: Xavier and Butler. While the Minutemen are 7-7 vs. the Top 100, they are just 1-5 vs. Top 50 teams. Win their next two and we’ll re-evaluate.
Temple (19-8 | 8-5) | RPI: 41 | SOS: 37 | – The Owls have won three straight over fellow A-10 bubble teams – including a 20-point victory over Charlotte. Other victories of note: Syracuse, Saint Louis, and Villanova. A tidy 8-6 mark vs. Top 100 teams is pretty nice given some other bubble teams. With three of four at home down the stretch, Temple controls its NCAA fate.
Xavier (16-11 | 8-5) | RPI: 86 | SOS: 96 | – Just when the RPI numbers suggested it was time to remove XU from the bubble, the Musketeers held off Memphis for a crucial victory. When you factor in wins over Butler, Temple, and La Salle, XU has a decent top-end profile. The problem remains overcoming five sub-100 RPI losses and a 4-6 mark vs. Top 100 teams. Xavier has home games left with UMass and Saint Louis before a trip to Butler. A tough slate, but one the Musketeers needs if they want to make a late charge.
Locks: Duke, Miami-FL | Should Be In: NC State | Bubble: North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland
Maryland (19-9 | 7-8) | RPI: 73 | SOS: 119 | – The Terrapins have lost back-to-back road games to Boston College and Georgia Tech. That’s an NIT recipe for a bubble team – especially one with a weak non-conference schedule (ranked No. 291). Despite wins over NC State and Duke, Maryland needs to sweep it’s last three to regain any real foothold for an at-large bid. And two of those (Wake Forest and Virginia) are on the road.
North Carolina (18-8 | 9-5) | RPI: 20 | SOS: 9 | – Three straight wins have certainly helped the Tar Heels, and their power numbers suggest they are on fairly solid footing. But the Committee won’t overlook a 2-6 mark vs. Top 50 teams – both victories at home. The closing stretch isn’t easy: it includes games at Clemson and Maryland. And there’s that rematch with Duke on March 9.
Virginia (19-8 | 9-5) | RPI: 65 | SOS: 142 | – The next two weeks are huge for the Cavaliers – beginning with Duke at home on Thursday night. Even with a pile of questionable losses, Virginia has put itself in position for at-large consideration thanks to wins over NC State, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Wisconsin – the latter at the Kohl Center during the Big10-ACC Challenge. But a mediocre finish could still spell trouble. A non-conference SOS ranked above 290 is a major reason why.
Locks: Syracuse, Louisville, Georgetown, Marquette | Should Be In: Pittsburgh, Notre Dame | Bubble: Cincinnati, Villanova, St. John’s
Cincinnati (19-9 | 7-8) | RPI: 49 | SOS: 26| – After losing three straight and five of six, the Bearcats find themselves moving in the wrong direction. There are plenty of positives – including non-conference wins over Oregon, Iowa State, and Alabama – and no bad losses. But Cincinnati’s final three games now have added importance. They have a solid Connecticut team at home Saturday before a trip to Louisville. A split would be very helpful. Losing both would certainly create some anxious moments heading into the Big East tourney.
St. John’s (16-11 | 8-7) | RPI: 61 | SOS: 30 | – Following Sunday’s loss home loss to Pittsburgh (SJU’s third loss in four games), time is quickly working against the Red Storm. And the final three aren’t easy – at Providence, at Notre Dame, Marquette. Winning at least two of those is critical. Anything less and there will be a hill to climb in New York. SJU is 4-8 vs. Top 100 teams.
Villanova (17-11 | 9-7) | RPI: 55 | SOS: 39 | – Villanova found a way to lose at Seton Hall Monday. With games at Pittsburgh and home to Georgetown still ahead, that loss could create some issues. Of course, victories over Louisville, Syracuse, and Marquette still hold a lot of weight (3-1 vs. Top 25 teams). Other than SHU, the only other “bad” loss on the Wildcats’ resume is to Columbia in November. A split down the stretch would take some pressure of an early game (or two) at the BE tourney.
Locks: Indiana, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Wisconsin | Should Be In: Illinois, Minnesota | Bubble: Iowa
Iowa (18-10 | 7-8) | RPI: 90 | SOS: 139 | – Letting a big lead slip away at Nebraska put the Hawkeyes on the fringe of the bubble even with Wednesday’s home win over Purdue. Given a horrible non-conference SOS number (321), a so-so Big Ten profile won’t be enough. It doesn’t help that they are 2-7 in games played outside Carver Hawkeye Arena. And a trip to Bloomington is up next.
Locks: Kansas, Kansas State, Oklahoma State | Should Be In: None | Bubble: Baylor, Oklahoma, Iowa State
Baylor (16-11 | 8-7) | RPI: 58 | SOS: 36 | – The Bears ended a three-game slide and avoided further trouble by winning at West Virginia. Next up is Kansas State at home. Then it’s a trip to Texas before the home finale with Kansas. Baylor really needs a split with the Kansas schools and a victory at Texas. That would put them in position to do some work at the B12 tourney. The Bears are 4-9 vs. Top 100 teams and have a troubling 9-11 mark vs. the Top 150.
Iowa State (19-9 | 9-6) | RPI: 53 | SOS: 72 | – Some tough luck has left Iowa State’s resume a bit bare. That said, the Cyclones look like an NCAA team when you watch them play. If the “eye test” matters in the Committee room, ISU might be okay. At the same time, there’s no escaping a 2-6 mark vs. Top 50 teams and a 3-7 record in road games. A sweep of Baylor helps, but not as much if the Bears fall short. Right now, ISU has just two wins against NCAA teams (K-State, Oklahoma). And there’s the ugly loss at Texas Tech. It would be best for the Cyclones to at least split their upcoming games with Oklahoma and Oklahoma State and then take care of West Virginia in Morgantown.
Oklahoma (18-9 | 9-6) | RPI: 29 | SOS: 10 | – Although the Sooners have a great computer profile (which helps), their lack of high quality wins remains a concern. Which means losing a big lead against Texas Wednesday wasn’t ideal. OU’s best wins are very good (Oklahoma State, Kansas) but a 2-5 mark overall against Top 50 teams suggests an NCAA berth isn’t wrapped up. A sweep of Baylor helps and the closing stretch is favorable – although Iowa State will be motivated for Saturday’s game in Norman. After that, it’s a home date with West Virginia before a closing trip to TCU. Losing more than one of the closing three would create some uncertainty heading into B12 tournament play. Winning all three would be ideal.
Locks: None | Should Be In: Memphis | Bubble: Southern Miss
Southern Miss (19-7 | 10-3) | RPI: 38 | SOS: 80 | – Other than some decent computer numbers Southern Miss doesn’t have much too offer. The Golden Eagles’ best wins are Denver, East Carolina, and UTEP, and they were swept by C-USA leader Memphis.
Locks: None | Should Be In: Creighton, Wichita State | Bubble: None
Locks: New Mexico | Should Be In: Colorado State, San Diego State, UNLV | Bubble: Boise State, Air Force
Air Force (14-10 | 7-6) | RPI: 64 | SOS: 52 | – The Falcons’ stayed on the at-large board thanks to a home win over Wyoming Tuesday. But AFA still has considerable work to do given a 3-8 mark vs. Top 50 teams, a 3-7 road record, and a less-than-stellar non-conference schedule (best win was Arkansas Pine-Bluff). Closing games include San Diego State and at New Mexico. AFA really needs both of those.
Boise State (17-8 | 7-6) | RPI: 47 | SOS: 99 | – Boise took care of business Wednesday against Nevada. Now, the NCAA push begins for real. The Broncos end with this slate: Colorado State, at UNLV, San Diego State. Win two of those and Boise has a chance for serious consideration. Anything less will leave some work to do at the MTW tournament. A non-conference win at Creighton is a potentially nice wildcard.
Locks: Arizona | Should Be In: Oregon, UCLA, Colorado | Bubble: Arizona State, California
Arizona State (20-9 | 9-7) | RPI: 88 | SOS: 128 | – A three-game road trip to end the season – which will likely determine ASU’s post-season invitation – started with an overtime loss at UCLA. Next is USC, which upset Arizona Wednesday. Then it’s off to Arizona. Win both of those and the Sun Devils can stay in the conversation. Lose both and it’ll probably take the P12 tournament title to qualify. Although ASU has four Top 50 wins (including a sweep of Colorado), their overall SOS is suspect. They have played 16 games against teams ranked 150 or lower in the RPI (and gone 14-2 in the those games).
California (18-9 | 10-5) | RPI: 46 | SOS: 32 | – After sweeping the Oregon schools, Cal is probably in better shape than some people think. Their 5-game winning streak includes victories at Arizona and over UCLA. That’s improved Cal to 4-5 vs. Top 50 teams (although they have just 5 Top 100 wins overall). They also have not lost to anyone outside the RPI Top 100. With three games at home to close (Utah, Colorado, and Stanford), a sweep would likely land the Bears in the Field of 68. Some sort of odd split might leave them a little patch-up work to do in the Pac-12 tourney.
Locks: Florida | Should Be In: Missouri | Bubble: Mississippi, Kentucky, Alabama, Arkansas, Tennessee
Tennessee (17-10 | 9-6) | RPI: 51 | SOS: 19 | – It’s been a productive two weeks or so for the Volunteers, and they’ve moved from the fringe of bubble consideration all the way to serious at-large consideration. Six straight conference wins have a way of helping (ask Illinois). An earlier blowout of rival Kentucky was followed by Tuesday’s victory over Florida. With two other Top 100 games in that stretch, UT’s record against that group is now 8-9. The Vols also have a win over Wichita State, and their only questionable loss is against Georgia. If Tennessee can avoid two road landmines (@Georgia, @Auburn) up next, they close with Missouri in Knoxville.
Alabama (18-9 | 11-4) | RPI: 62 | SOS: 106 | – Piling up SEC wins isn’t necessarily the same as piling up quality wins. Alabama took care of Auburn Tuesday but they still have just one Top 50 RPI win (Kentucky at home). The Crimson Tide split with Tennessee and did beat Villanova. But there are also four sub-100 RPI losses – which include Mercer and Tulane. Upcoming trips to Florida and Ole Miss will likely make or break the Tide’s chances.
Arkansas (17-11 | 8-7) | RPI: 81 | SOS: 89 | – Arkansas spent Wednesday night losing at LSU – which dropped the Razorbacks to an ugly 1-8 mark in road games. It’s the sort of thing that sticks out like a sore thumb because there aren’t an NCAA games in Bud Walton Arena. Fortunately, the Hogs have home games remaining with Kentucky and Texas AM. But it might be the trip to Missouri that determines whether this team stays in the hunt. A home victory over Florida is the biggest highlight. But that’s one of only four wins against Top 100 teams.
Kentucky (20-8 | 11-4) | RPI: 50 | SOS: 66 | – UK routed Mississippi State Wednesday at Rupp Arena. Which sets the Wildcats up for their stretch run. It begins Saturday with a trip to Arkansas and ends with a home date against the Gators. In between there’s a somewhat testy trip to Georgia. Can UK survive? How the Selection Committee ultimately judges Kentucky without Nerlens Noel remains to be seen. Another quality win or two would make it a lot easier to figure out.
Mississippi (21-7 | 10-5) | RPI: 56 | SOS: 149 | – Ole Miss beat Texas AM at home Wednesday and remains firmly on the bubble. The positives are a home win over Missouri and a sweep of Tennessee. The negatives are a weak non-conference SOS (No. 283), a loss at South Carolina last week, and 10 wins against teams ranked 200 or lower in the RPI. There’s aren’t any “up” games left on the Rebels’ schedule – the best is Alabama at home. Best to keep on winning and hope that a high volume of wins makes up for a lack of high-quality ones.
Locks: Gonzaga | Should Be In: None | Bubble: St. Mary’s
Saint Mary’s (24-5 | 13-2) | RPI: 45 | SOS: 135 | – Saint Mary’s is playing some pretty good basketball these days. But will the “eye test” surpass the resume test? That could be huge for the Gaels. They lost both games to Gonzaga, but looked the part against Creighton last weekend. After blowing past Pepperdine Wednesday, the Gaels close with Santa Clara at home. Win that and Saint Mary’s will be in decent shape heading into the WCC tournament. A potential third matchup with BYU in the WCC semis could yet be important.
BEST OF THE REST
Locks: None | Should Be In: None | Bubble: Middle Tennessee, Belmont, Bucknell, Akron, Louisiana Tech
Akron (22-4 | 13-0) | RPI: 36 | SOS: 129 | – The Zips have not lost since December 15 (at Detroit). And Wednesday, they took a major step toward wrapping up an outright MAC title by winning at (and sweeping) Ohio. A clear league championship by multiple games has proven helpful to teams like Akron in the past. An early win over Middle Tennessee State helps, giving the Zips a 3-3 mark vs. the Top 100. The potential negative is a 16-1 mark against teams ranked below 150 in the RPI. Assuming they win out, reaching the MAC title game will give the Committee a reason to seriously consider the Zips for an at-large bid.
Belmont (21-6 | 13-2) | RPI: 26 | SOS: 77 | – Good scheduling and a 5-4 mark vs. Top 100 teams has put the Bruins on the radar for at-large consideration. A win over Middle Tennessee State is the Bruins’ best RPI win, although a victory at Stanford might be equally important. There are no “ugly” losses on the Bruins’ resume – although Northeastern isn’t great. If Belmont wins the OVC outright and makes it to the title game the Committee will have an interesting decision. From there, it depends on the overall landscape.
Bucknell (23-5 | 11-2) | RPI: 54 | SOS: 173 | – A victory over La Salle highlights a resume that shows a lot of wins but not a lot of quality W’s. Bucknell has beaten New Mexico St and won at Purdue. Unfortunately, the latter isn’t helping like it normally might. The negatives are losses at Penn State and Princeton and a very weak overall schedule.
Louisiana Tech (23-3 | 14-0) | RPI: 52 | SOS: 269 | – La Tech’s strength of schedule is a major hurdle to overcome – reflected by 20 games (19-1 record) against sub-150 opponents. The Bulldogs’ best win is over bubble-dweller Southern Miss. There’s also an ugly loss at McNeese State. Despite a high volume of wins, an at-large bid is unlikely.
Middle Tennessee (25-4 | 17-1) | RPI: 23 | SOS: 120 | – An early win over Ole Miss helps but the Blue Raiders’ only other Top 100 win is Central Florida. Like some others on this list, a 16-0 mark vs. sub-150 teams is a drag on the schedule. Middle Tennessee also has losses to fellow bubble-dwellers Belmont and Akron – although both were on the road.
Jay Wright on double-duty with Villanova, USA Basketball
Jay Wright immediately accepted a chance to be an assistant coach with USA Basketball for this year’s World Cup.
And then he checked his calendar.
Villanova students are headed back to school this week — while the Villanova men’s basketball coach will be halfway around the world for the next month or so. It has been, and will continue being, a major schedule challenge for Wright as he’s tasked with both helping USA Basketball win a gold medal while his players are on campus getting ready to start their seasons.
“It was a snap ‘yes.’ That’s the problem,” Wright said. “And then after you think about it, you’re like, ‘wow.’ Only then do you realize what you’re missing at home.”
To be clear, Wright said this is a problem only half-seriously.
Logistical matters weren’t going to keep him from being part of the staff of assistants that include Golden State’s Steve Kerr and Atlanta’s Lloyd Pierce — all working under USA Basketball head men’s coach Gregg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs.
“This is basketball heaven,” Wright said.
It’s not uncommon for college coaches like Wright to be part of the USA Basketball mix, which can collide with college calendars. At the most recent World Cup in 2014, Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski was the head coach and Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim was one of the assistants — and that tournament ended in mid-September.
But at this tournament, which starts Aug. 31 in China with the Americans playing their first game against the Czech Republic a day later, Wright is the only college coach on the U.S. roster. Popovich, Kerr and Pierce all have some time before their ‘real’ teams start practice. Wright doesn’t have that luxury.
“He’s kind of doing double-duty right now,” Popovich said. “He’s keeping touch with his kids, and obviously doing a great job with the USA team. But he hasn’t forgotten about his Villanova guys.”
To make this work, Wright rearranged Villanova’s summer schedule, everything from player workouts to coaching meetings. He was able to do his usual gamut of recruiting, but his usual start-of-semester matters like meeting with parents and having newcomers get acclimated now will fall on his staff of assistants until he returns.
“You don’t say no to this,” Wright said.
The Americans needed a 17-hour flight from Los Angeles before arriving in Melbourne, Australia, where they resumed practice on Monday. They’ll play three games in Australia, the first of those coming on Thursday, before heading to China next week.
“Longest flight I’ve been on, but I’m happy to be here,” Boston’s Jayson Tatum said.
Popovich believes in a style of coaching where everyone gets a chance to argue all parts of the game — a participatory approach, like he uses in San Antonio. Wright is primarily helping with the U.S. defensive schemes, but he also gets his opportunity to offer suggestions for the offensive plans. And he’s usually one of the last coaches still working on the floor after practice, running groups through shooting drills.
“We’re meeting in the morning, watching film, meeting with the team, practicing, going back, watching film, then watching film with the team,” Wright said. “And then we all go to dinner, but all we talk about at dinner is basketball.”
Wright guided Villanova to national championships in 2016 and 2018. Over the last four seasons, only Gonzaga has won more games than the Villanova — the Bulldogs have 130 wins, the Wildcats 129. And he has plenty of USA Basketball experience, like a gold medal as coach at the 2005 World University Games and a select team coach before the 2010 World Cup and 2016 Olympic runs by the senior national team.
Despite his experience, Wright notes that being around coaches like Popovich, Kerr and Pierce for umpteen hours a day has been a basketball education.
“It’s such an incredible opportunity,” Wright said. “We’re only a couple weeks in and I’ve already learned so much that I can bring back to our team. It’s incredible. Honestly, I feel like I’ve grown in two weeks as a coach, as a leader, more than I have in the last 10 years.”
Pounding Nails: Mick Cronin’s plan to recast UCLA from blue-blood to blue collar
Four months into his tenure, the players that he inherited as the new UCLA head coach have yet to experience a vintage Mick Cronin blowup.
They’ve seen them, mind you.
They pull up the YouTube videos on their phones. It’s something that the staff and the players laugh about it. But watching Mt. Cronin erupt on Ted Valentine, J.P. Macura or whoever Rob is is very different than experiencing first-hand the wrath of a man who once missed a season because he, quite literally, blew a gasket.
“I can tell it’s there,” Chris Smith, a junior wing and one of the elder statesmen on this UCLA roster. “We’ve seen snippets of it in practice.”
“He will get fiery,” added freshman Jaime Jaquez, “but he’s being patient.”
And there’s a reason for that.
(Which I’ll get to.)
After 13 seasons as the head coach at Cincinnati, after rebuilding the Bearcats from the ground up, Cronin left the city where he was born to become the tenth man in the last 44 years tasked with getting UCLA basketball back to where it was under John Wooden. The hire did not come with a ton of fanfare; in fact, Cronin was, at best, UCLA’s fourth choice. They wanted Jamie Dixon, but they couldn’t negotiate their way around his buyout. The same can be said for Rick Barnes, who publicly stated that he would be the head coach of the Bruins right now if the program had ponied up enough. UCLA chased John Calipari, and while it’s obvious that Coach Cal was using them to get a raise out of Kentucky, the Bruins believed there was a real chance they could get a deal done.
The fact that Cronin was not UCLA’s first choice had nothing to do with the level of success he achieved with the Bearcats. There are six programs in college basketball that have been to the NCAA tournament the past nine seasons. Cincinnati is one of them. Michigan State, Gonzaga, Duke, North Carolina and Kansas are the other five. Cronin is the only coach on that list that isn’t either in the Hall of Fame today or a lead pipe lock to be inducted in the very near future.
“A program like UCLA, winning is expected,” redshirt senior Prince Ali said. “He’s bringing that pedigree.”
Out of context, that level of consistency is remarkable.
In context, it’s even more impressive.
(I promise, I’m getting to the point.)
Remember, when Cronin took the Cincinnati job, it was at the height of the Big East’s powers in hoops. When he was hired, he had just two players on the roster, one of which was Connor Barwin, a walk-on recruited from the football team and a future NFL player. In his third season, the Big East had three No. 1 seeds in the tournament and a Final Four appearance. The first year Cincinnati reached the Big Dance, they were one of 11 schools from the conference to get a bid.
Making Cincinnati matter in a conference that was that strong was no easy task.
And that success was borne out of the one thing that, as it stands, is nowhere to be found in Westwood.
Cronin developed a specific brand for his Cincinnati program. They were tough. They were physical. They were going to grind you down defensively. They were going to win the battle of the boards. They were going to play that open stance defense.
More importantly, the players on the roster knew what to expect. They had been recruited by the Cincinnati staff. Those relationships would often last six years, from the time Cronin could start recruiting them as juniors in high school through their senior season in college. They went to Cincinnati because they wanted to be coached the way Cronin coaches, because they thought they could thrive playing the way Cronin’s teams play. They picked Cincinnati for a reason.
More importantly, they knew everything that was expected of them. There was a familiarity built off of roster continuity that allowed the program, in a sense, to run itself.
Now? In LA?
“Everyone is new,” Cronin told me last week. “New to me and me to them.”
Cronin knows there is going to be a learning curve with this group. The players have to figure out what they are being asked to do. They have to learn an entirely new terminology. They have to learn Cronin’s teaching style while he has to figure out the best way to get through to them. As he put it, “listening is overrated. It’s listen, learn and apply. The way [my players] learn and apply is going to determine our rate of improvement,” and it’s his job to figure out the best way for them to learn, and the easiest way for them to apply.
And then there is the elephant in the room. The players have to be reprogrammed to play a style that hasn’t been prevalent in Pauley Pavilion for at least a decade.
Cronin wouldn’t comment on what UCLA was before he arrived – “I cannot speak to anything that’s happened here prior because I wasn’t here.” – but I certainly can.
During his nine year NCAA tournament run, the Bearcats were, on average, ranked 15th in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric. The only season in which they ranked outside the top 22 in defensive efficiency was last year, when they “only” ranked 28th. UCLA, on the other hand, has ranked outside the top 100 in KenPom’s defensive ratings for three of the last four years. They haven’t finished in the top 30 since 2008, when Ben Howland was still getting the Bruins to Final Fours.
Put another way, Cronin is not only the new coach walking in the door, he’s the guy asking a roster full of players to play a way they’ve never been asked to play before.
That takes time.
And if he comes at them screaming like a madman every time they make a mistake, he’ll lose them.
He knows that.
“Being a college basketball coach is like being a starting pitcher,” Cronin said. “You have to change pitches. You’re pitching the whole game. You can’t throw fastballs every day.”
“You can’t get after people if they don’t believe or trust what you’re doing is real,” said assistant coach Darren Savino, who has been with Cronin for a decade, and that as much as anything else has been the focus of the first four months of the Cronin Era.
Cronin has taken a fairly unusual approach. There haven’t been team trips to the bowling alley. He hasn’t taken UCLA on any wilderness retreats or hired any Navy SEALS to come in and grind his players to a pulp with 5:30 a.m. workouts.
“I believe guys need to have a life and when it’s time to work, you work,” Cronin said. “I’m not into the corny stuff.”
I asked him to elaborate on that.
“Showing up to your kid’s game is not being a parent. Taking your guys bowling is not being a coach or developing bonds,” he said. “After practice, the guys all go around saying ‘good work today,’ but during practice they make faces when a guy makes a mistake or doesn’t throw them the ball. Anyone can walk around saying good job, but what about when we’re competing?
“College basketball is 80 percent culture and how hard you compete. Do you care for each other? How do you interact? As a coach, you have to make it mandatory to play unselfish, play for each other and treat each other right.
“I can get after you as a coach. You don’t need to get on his ass because I will do that. You need to lift him up. My line is simple: ‘Your job is to worry about the team and helping each other. My job is to worry about you.'”
“I’ve felt the switch in culture. Everyone knows the whole idea is intensity and passion,” Smith said. “I’ve felt his presence in the gym, in practice. We’re going 100 percent in every drill. I can already see what the difference is going to be.”
“It’s great so far because there’s no stat sheet yet,” Cronin added with a chuckle.
UCLA lost their three leading scorers from last season in Jaylen Hands, Kris Wilkes and Moses Brown, but there is more than enough talent on this roster for Cronin to get to the 10th straight NCAA tournament. Ali was a top 30 prospect nationally coming out of high school. There are three four-star recruits returning on the wing – Smith, Jules Bernard and David Singleton – and two coming back to school in the frontcourt. Jaquez is a local kid and a freshman that made his debut playing for the Mexican national team this summer, and both Tyger Campbell and Shareef O’Neal will be able to play this year after missing their freshman seasons.
Put another way, the problem with the UCLA program the last few years hasn’t been talent. In fact, the Bruins are deep enough that Cronin is actually concerned about making sure he finds enough minutes for everyone that deserves minutes.
The problem last season was simple, really. There was a lack of desire to play defense, there were too many guys playing for their draft stock instead of their teammates and there was a coaching staff that didn’t – or couldn’t – hold players accountable; Steve Alford was fired on Dec. 31st, and interim head coach Murry Bartow was nothing more than a substitute teacher.
Changing that mindset, slowly but surely, has been Cronin’s mission, and he knows that the process is far from complete.
“When you start to build a house, it’s a bunch of boards and nail,” he said. “You have to start pounding nails. You can’t look at it as a bunch of wood and a bunch of nails. You have to get up every day and start pounding nails, and eventually, you have a house.”
There is so much that is going to happen between now and the time that next season starts that it almost seems foolish to publish a preseason top 25 today.
But we’re doing it anyway!
A couple of notes: Who is going to head to the NBA is very much in the air right now. There are still a number of freshmen that have yet to announce where they are playing their college ball. The transfer market has barely heated up. For decisions that are up in the air, you’ll see an asterisk next to their name. We’re making predictions on what certain players will do and ranking based off of them.
So with all that said, here is the preseason top 25.
1. MICHIGAN STATE
WHO’S GONE: Matt McQuaid, Kenny Goins, Nick Ward
WHO’S BACK: Cassius Winston, Xavier Tillman, Joshua Langford, Aaron Henry, Kyle Ahrens, Gabe Brown, Foster Loyer, Marcus Bingham, Thomas Kithier
WHO’S COMING IN: Rocket Watts, Malik Hall, Julius Marble
FLINT, Mich. — A jury acquitted former Michigan State basketball star Mateen Cleaves Tuesday on charges alleging he sexually assaulted a woman in a motel room four years ago.
The verdict announced in a Genesee County courtroom in Cleaves’ hometown of Flint came after a nearly-two week trial that included the testimony of the Mount Morris woman, who told jurors that she had wanted to leave the motel room but Cleaves continued to force himself on her.
Evidence against Cleaves included a video that prosecutors contended showed the woman pulling away from Cleaves. Prosecutors argued she tried twice to escape from the motel room.
Cleaves did not testify. One of his attorneys, Frank Manley, said Cleaves had consensual sex with the woman who was in the motel room “of her own free will” after a charity golf tournament and visit to a bar. Cleaves’ attorneys told jurors that the woman lied about what happened because she felt guilty about cheating on her boyfriend.
The 41-year-old Cleaves was acquitted on all charges, including unlawful imprisonment and assault with intent to commit criminal sexual penetration. He had faced a maximum of 15 years in prison had he been convicted.
Cleaves has long denied the allegations, saying in a March 2016 tweet that he was “innocent and the allegations are without merit.”
The trial itself came after a long legal battle that started in late 2016 when a district judge dismissed the charges, saying that there were a number of factors that suggested “something else was going on” between Cleaves and the woman.
But in 2017, the charges were reinstated after the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office filed an appeal that contended the judge had abused her “discretion of power” in dismissing the charges. Then last year, the Michigan Supreme Court refused to review that decision, clearing the way for the trial.
Cleaves is a revered figure in Michigan, an integral part of a Michigan State team that won the national championship in 2000 before his six-year NBA career.
And on Tuesday, sitting in a courtroom was another reminder of that team: Coach Tom Izzo. Izzo told The Detroit News that he did not know the details about the allegations against his former star player but wanted to be in the courtroom to support Cleaves as he would “any of my guys.”
Less than 24 hours after cutting his list to five schools, five-star point guard Daishen Nix committed to UCLA.
Nix is a 6-foot-5 point guard from Alaska that’s currently playing his high school ball in Las Vegas. He’s known for his court vision and elite basketball IQ with a developing jumper and a feel for the game that cannot be taught. He ranks as a top 15 prospect, according to 247 Sports.
He was Mick Cronin’s top target at the point guard spot, and Cronin landed him. That’s notable, because one of the concerns that people had about UCLA’s decision to hire Cronin was whether or not a coach known for his toughness, his intensity and his team’s propensity for being defense first would adjust to playing at California’s flagship program, where tempo is a must and defense has been, for the last half-decade, optional.
And while it remains to be seen how the team and program will adjust to his coaching style – I will have a story coming on that later this week – at the very least, Cronin has proven that he can dip his toe in the west coast recruiting waters and get a player that he prioritized.