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Pounding Nails: Mick Cronin’s plan to recast UCLA from blue-blood to blue collar

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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.)

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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.

(We’ve arrived.)

(Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

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.

Prince Ali (Alika Jenner/Getty Images)

“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.”

Big 12 hands down Kansas-Kansas State fight suspensions

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The Big 12 handed down suspensions to four Kansas and Kansas State players for their role in the fight that occurred in Phog Allen Fieldhouse on Tuesday night.

Silvio De Sousa, who tried to fight three different Kansas State players and picked up a stool during the melee, received a 12 game suspension from the conference. David McCormack, who went into the stands to confront James Love III, received a two game suspension. Love was given eight games for part in the fight, while Antonio Gordon, the freshman that turned a messy situation into a fight, was hit with a three game suspension.

“This kind of behavior cannot be tolerated and these suspensions reflect the severity of last evening’s events,” said Commissioner Bob Bowlsby.  “I am appreciative of the cooperation of both institutions in resolving this matter.”

In the final seconds on Tuesday night, after DaJuan Gordon stole the ball from him at halfcourt, De Sousa blocked Gordon’s shot and towered over him. That sparked an incident that turned into a full-fledged brawl, as De Sousa threw punches at three different players on Kansas State before picking up a stool as the fight spilled into the handicapped section of Kansas seating.

Self called the fight “an embarrassment” after the game, adding on Wednesday that “we are disappointed in [De Sousa’s] actions and there is no place in the game for that behavior.”

McCormack will be eligible to return for Kansas on Feb. 1st when they play Texas Tech at home. De Sousa will be available to play in the final game of the regular season at Texas Tech. Gordon can return on Feb. 3rd, when the Wildcats host Baylor, while Love will be out until late February. But he has played just one game and two minutes on the season, so there is no clear indication of when he will actually put on a Kansas State jersey again.

The four most important questions after Kansas-Kansas State fight

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Wvery other sport can treat brawls like comedy, and I think it’s about time that we did the same for basketball.

So let’s take a look at the four funniest moments from last night’s Kansas-Kansas State fight. Shouts to Jomboy:

1. IS THE KANSAS MASCOT OK?

Throughout the entire fight, the mascot is just in utter disbelief. He cannot believe what he just saw, and he certainly cannot be consoled:

2. CAN JEREMY CASE START AT LINEBACKER FOR KU’S FOOTBALL TEAM?

Case is the video coordinator for Kansas. He’s also a former Kansas point guard. He knows what this rivalry is all about, and he also is not going to be afraid to get in the middle of it.

Case starts out on the wrong side of the melee:

But when he sees De Sousa and Love squaring up and throwing punches, he intervenes by throwing himself into a player six inches taller than him:

3. WHAT HAPPENED TO JAMES LOVE III’S SHOE?

James Love the third has played in exactly one game this season. He has spent more time on the court fighting that he has actually playing, but he still found a way to get into the middle of this fight and, in the process, lost his shoe:

He’s not dressed for the game.

Did he bring an extra pair of shoes? Did he have to head back onto the bus without a shoe on this right foot? So many questions, so few answers.

4. WHO IS THE MAN IN THE ORANGE HAT?

He’s some kind of photographer.

He got his shot, that’s for sure:

Kansas-Kansas State fight: Nuance, context the key in Silvio De Sousa discussion

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So I wanted to elaborate on a point that I made on twitter this morning because 280 characters just is not enough to be able to parse through the nuance of this situation.

If you missed it, the thread is here.

First and foremost, everyone involved in this needs to be punished. Silvio De Sousa needs to be suspended. Antonio Gordon needs to be suspended. James Love III needs to be suspended. David McCormack, and potentially Marcus Garrett, probably need to be suspended, although I’m not sure either of them actually through a punch. Point being, anyone else that threw a punch needs to be suspended.

Full stop.

I am not saying otherwise.

But I think that it is important to add some context to the conversation, and I also think that it is important to say this: This doesn’t make any of the young men involved in this fight bad people. Silvio De Sousa is not inherently a bad person because he picked up a stool, and the faux-trage of people calling for him to get booted out of school, arrested or even deported are, at best, completely over-reacting and, at worst, showing off a bit of their racial bias.

Before I get into this, one more thing: I am not condoning any of it. Fights like this should not happen.

But the reality of hyper-competitive athletics is that in emotionally charged situations, fights are going to happen. And if you’ve ever been in a fight like this, you know that things happen incredibly quickly. You’re not thinking, you’re reacting. You can’t call a 20 second time out to come up with a way to defend yourself when someone is throwing haymakers, you just do what you can in the moment.

So let’s talk about the moment, shall we?

De Sousa is the guy that set this entire thing in motion with the way that he reacted to DaJuan Gordon’s steal and layup attempt. The reason the Kansas State bench rushes over to the scene is because De Sousa is towering over one of their freshman teammates, and the reason the Kansas sideline runs over is because the Kansas State sideline does. What turned this incident into a full-fledged brawl was Antonio Gordon flying in and shoving De Sousa over the back of the basket stanchion. De Sousa reacts by throwing punches at two different Kansas State players when a third player — James Love III, in the black polo — comes flying in and squares up with him. They both throw a few punches at each other, knocking De Sousa back over the stanchion again as Kansas staffer Jeremy Case comes flying in to break them up.

Put yourself in De Sousa’s shoes here. In the span of 10 seconds, he’s fought three different Kansas State players, sees nothing but purple in front of him and just got knocked to the ground. Is he getting jumped? Does he have to fight them 1-on-3? That’s when he grabs the stool, to defend himself, and when he sees that no one is coming after him anymore, he drops it:

Context.

He should be suspended for 8-10 games.

He set this entire thing in motion.

But maybe, just maybe, tone down the rhetoric.

Women’s Wednesday: A new column dedicated to the women of college basketball

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Welcome to CBT’s first ever weekly women’s basketball column. I’m here to help provide you with some insight into the world of women’s college hoops.

Women’s sports are reaching new heights, especially in basketball. The WNBA announced a new collective bargaining agreement starting in the 2020 season that includes a 53 percent raise, maternity benefits, a base salary and performance-based bonuses. This year’s NCAA women’s basketball tournament will be broadcasted in its entirety on ESPN, with the semifinals and championship game premiering in primetime.

Female athletes are beginning to garner the attention they deserve. Sabrina Ionescu is drawing national attention for a historic senior season, as she has 22 career triple-doubles and became Oregon’s all-time leading basketball scorer in her career-high 37-point performance against Stanford last week. In the WNBA, women such as Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi, and more are shattering gender stereotypes and proving that women can play basketball at a high level, just as men can.

While women’s sports have made a push into the public eye, there is still quite a way to go. It’s important to place an emphasis on the women who excel in their sport and give them the spotlight they deserve. Too many times women are only given credit through a masculine lens, whether that’s only getting attention after receiving praise from men, being compared to a male counterpart, or being a footnote in a male athlete’s story. Female athletes deserve to be their own story.

That’s what I’m hoping to do with this column over the rest of the season — give women a place to shine. I’d like to use this space to highlight some of the amazing women that play in the NCAA and hear from them about their experiences, the records they’re setting and their basketball journey. While I won’t even begin to make a dent in the breadth of talent available in women’s college basketball, I hope to use this column each week to take a deeper dive into some incredible women, as well as give you an idea of what’s happening around the country that week.

WEDNESDAY’S NEWS AND NOTES

South Carolina sits atop the world of college hoops, earning 22 first-place votes from the AP panel to nab the No. 1 spot. The Gamecocks have an 18-1 record with wins over ranked opponents such as Maryland, Baylor, Kentucky and most recently Mississippi State.

Baylor — the reigning national champs —- sits in the No. 2 spot in the rankings after dethroning UConn and ending its dominant 98-game winning streak at home. The Lady Bears received six of the first-place votes from the AP committee.

The rest of the top five is filled out by UConn at No. 3, Oregon at No. 4 after beating then-No. 3 Stanford, and Louisville rounds it out at fifth, receiving the last two first-place votes.

In a monster performance against Stanford, Oregon’s Sabrina Ionescu had a career-high 37 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists. She has four triple-doubles on the season and has a chance to become the NCAA’s first player to eclipse 2,000 career points, 1,000 career rebounds and 1,000 career assists. As of Jan. 18, she has 2,265 points, 904 rebounds and 928 assists.

DePaul remains unbeaten in the Big East, with Chante Stonewall leading the team with 17.9 ppg while Kelly Campbell has 102 assists on the season, ranking No. 8 in the country.

Baylor’s 40-point victory over then-No. 17 West Virginia is their 45th consecutive Big 12 win.

Mississippi State’s JaMya Mingo-Young and Aliyah Matharu combined for 24 points and four steals off the bench in a close 79-81 loss to South Carolina on Monday.

Star freshman and No. 1 recruit Haley Jones suffered an apparent right knee injury and left Stanford’s Sunday win over Oregon State. She is scheduled to have an MRI but the team has given no further updates.

North Carolina State’s Elissa Cunane has 20+ points in four of her last six games and 10 double-doubles on the season, helping the Wolfpack to a dominant win over Florida State last week.

UCLA became the last undefeated team to fall with a double overtime loss to USC — who hadn’t yet won a Pac-12 matchup —  on Friday.

Northwestern made its debut this season in the Top-25, coming in at No. 22 — its first ranking since the 2015-2016 season.

No. 3 Oregon faces rival No. 7 Oregon State on Friday in a crucial Pac-12 matchup.

Stanford freshman Fran Belini threw down a one-handed dunk in pregame warmup before facing Oregon that you HAVE to see:

Kansas, Kansas State both taking blame for massive fight

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The Sunflower Showdown took a wild turn on Tuesday night. And there’s not a clear indication of what’ll happen next.

No. 3 Kansas and Kansas State ended their bitter showdown with a wild melee in the disabled seating behind the Wildcats’ basket that included punches, shoving and at least one player threatening to swing a stool.

The Jayhawks were dribbling out the time on their 81-60 victory when Silvio De Sousa was stripped by DaJuan Gordon near mid-court. Gordon tried to go for a layup and De Sousa recovered to block his shot and send the freshman sprawling, then stood over Gordon and barked at him — triggering both benches to empty into what amounted to a rugby scrum.

At one point, De Sousa picked up a stool and held it over his head before Kansas assistant Jerrance Howard grabbed it from him from behind. The Jayhawks’ Marcus Garrett and David McCormick were also in the thick of the scrum along with the Wildcats’ James Love and David Sloan, who was the first player to come to Gordon’s defense.

It took both coaching staffs, the officials and Allen Fieldhouse security to separate the teams.

“Without knowing exactly everything that went down, it was obvious to me that we played a role in what transpired and there will be penalties for that,” said Jayhawks coach Bill Self, who was already shaking hands with Kansas State counterpart Bruce Weber when the chaos erupted. “I need to see the film to comment or have any definitive thoughts on exactly why or how it got started, because to be honest with you I don’t have any idea about that.”

This fight became a national event

The fight came three days after St. Francis and Sacred Heart were involved in a wild fracas following their game in Pennsylvania. But while that incident in the Northeast Conference went largely unnoticed, the pedigree of Kansas and the fact that both schools play in the Big 12 instantly turned their brawl into a national event.

Obviously it’s an embarrassment,” Self said. “It’s not something to be proud of. What happened showed zero signs of toughness. It’s a sign of immaturity and selfishness more so than toughness. If I was a fan watching, depending on your perspective, there would be nothing about that intriguing me to watch more.”

Then, adding to the bizarre finish, five players from each team were summoned back from the locker rooms by officials and one-tenth of a second was put on the clock. Kansas State shot technical free throws to booing from a few thousand fans, and the one make necessitated a change to the final box score.

The reason only those players returned? The rest of the players from each team — including those dressed in street clothes — were ejected because they had left the bench while the game was in progress.

“It should have been avoided,” Weber said. “It’s my guys, it’s my fault. They came here wanting to have a game, compete, and we didn’t compete the way we needed to, and probably a little frustration, especially the young guys.”

Weber had instructed his players to back off in the closing seconds and let the game run out. And while Self said he didn’t agree with the steal and layup attempt, he did acknowledge that Kansas State was merely playing to the final whistle.

“Silvio knew he was being defended,” Self said. “He took his ball, and certainly the way Silvio reacted to getting his ball taken, going and blocking his shot, that’s fair game. What transpired after that is what set everything off.”

What punishments are coming?

While he won’t be alone, De Sousa is likely to receive the stiffest punishment from the incident — the latest chapter in a career that has brought far more embarrassment and frustration to Kansas than pride and success.

It was De Sousa whose name surfaced in the FBI probe into college basketball in October 2018, and that in part led to an NCAA investigation of Kansas. The school received a notice of allegations last September that outlined major violations in men’s basketball, levied a head coach responsibility charge against Self and alleged a lack of institutional control. Those violations are being appealed and a decision is not expected until well after the season.

De Sousa was suspended last season for his role in the case, and he was supposed to sit out this season as well. But the school successfully appealed the decision, allowing the junior forward to return to the court.

Asked what his message was in the locker room after the game, Self replied: “There was no discussion on what happened from their vantage point. We talked to them and relayed to them how selfish it was. We relayed how disappointed we are. We should be in here talking about Christian Braun and selfishness created a situation where that’s not going to be the story line whatsoever. There was no communication back and forth. It was one way.”

Indeed, Braun was the story of the game until the final seconds after hitting six 3-pointers and scoring a career-high 20 points in his first Sunflower Showdown. The freshman guard grew up in nearby Burlington, Kansas.

Devon Dotson added 18 points and Udoka Azubuike finished with 10 points and 14 rebounds for Kansas (15-3, 5-1 Big 12), which beat the Wildcats for the 14th straight time at Allen Fieldhouse. Xavier Sneed had 16 points and David Sloan had 14 for the Wildcats (8-10, 1-5), who played a part in ending the Jayhawks’ conference title run last season.

“Credit to them. They kicked our butt,” said Weber, whose chin was reddened by what he called a stress-induced reaction. “I’m just happy nothing major happened to either team where there was an escalated fight. It was a bad play at the end. It’s disappointing. Life lessons for our young guys and hopefully next time they’ll be a little smarter.”