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UCLA Men’s Basketball’s Fall From Grace Is Concerning

Coach Mick Cronin appears to have gone all in on international talent, but the results have been disappointing to say the least.

Fifteen games into the 2023–24 season, the 6–9 UCLA Bruins men’s basketball team is running out of reasons for optimism.

The miserable Bruins lost for the seventh time in eight tries Saturday. This time, it was a home defeat to a Cal program that sat just 4–10 on the season and owned just two other Pac-12 wins since March 1, 2022. UCLA has topped 70 points in a game versus a Division I opponent just once since Nov. 15, and in that lone exception the Bruins scored 72 in a loss to Cal State Northridge. The disastrous start, combined with coach Mick Cronin’s frequent media antics as of late (including skipping the postgame press conference after the loss to Cal), have evoked images of how UCLA crashed and burned toward the end of the Ben Howland era in Westwood.

How did UCLA, fresh off three straight trips to at least the second weekend of the NCAA tournament, get here so quickly? And can Cronin, whose hire from Cincinnati was initially criticized for concerns about how his style of play and personality would fit in Westwood, right the ship?

At the heart of UCLA’s problems is the Bruins’ roster construction. UCLA’s roster underwent substantial turnover in the spring, with four starters in Jaime Jaquez Jr., Tyger Campbell, Jaylen Clark and Amari Bailey, all turning pro and veteran sharpshooter David Singleton graduating. That nucleus, particularly Jaquez and Campbell, had led UCLA’s return to prominence under Cronin, playing critical roles on all three teams that made deep March runs.

To replace them, UCLA went young, with seven of the Bruins’ 12 scholarship players being freshmen. The Bruins took just one transfer (former Utah wing Lazar Stefanovic) and went all in on international recruiting thanks to former assistant coach Ivo Simović, landing a highly touted class that featured Spanish big Aday Mara, Turkish forward Berke Buyuktuncel, French wing Ilane Fibleuil and Serbian guard Jan Vide. Mara, Buyuktuncel and Vide were all considered potential NBA prospects in early mock drafts, with the 7'3'' Mara a projected lottery pick in ESPN’s late September forecast.

Part of that international shift could have been related to the struggles of highly touted domestic freshmen under Cronin. Five-star recruit Peyton Watson averaged just three points per game and was in and out of the rotation in the 2021–22 season, slipping to No. 30 overall in the ’22 NBA draft as a result. Another former five-star, Bailey, came the following year and put up better numbers, but still slipped out of the first round after being a top-10 recruit per 247Sports. Cronin spoke this offseason about liking international players’ mentality and preparedness while broadly criticizing the U.S. youth development system.

“Here’s the difference: Everywhere but America, sports are not related to school,” Cronin said in a July appearance on the Petros and Money radio show. “Everything is club, and there are junior teams that are tied underneath professional teams. They don’t have the confines of the academics that limits high school coaches in every state. … Any time a European kid has played basketball, [he] has been coached. There’s no pickup basketball. … They’re more mature in their understanding of moving without the ball, passing the ball, concepts.”

Cronin also indicated he could coach international players harder because “coaches get fired quickly over there.”

“They think I’m a nice guy compared to their European coaches,” Cronin said in the same interview.

But the learning curve for these highly touted freshmen has been far longer than seemingly anticipated. It didn’t help matters that Mara and Buyuktuncel faced long battles with the NCAA to get formally cleared for competition, but once officially ready to play, the young Bruins have struggled to impact the game. Mara has been exiled from the rotation almost altogether, playing fewer than five minutes in each of UCLA’s four Pac-12 games. Cronin quipped that against Oregon State, Mara gave up five points “faster than I could go to the bathroom.” Buyuktuncel has earned more consistent minutes when healthy, but hasn’t been a savior offensively, shooting below 40% from the field and averaging fewer than seven points per game. Vide and Fibleuil have been afterthoughts in the rotation, with Cronin saying earlier this month that the latter had arrived with fundamentals that were “untrained.”

And more broadly, Cronin has questioned his team’s ability to learn from coaching, in comments that generated some controversy after his team’s loss to Stanford last week.

UCLA Bruins coach Mick Cronin watches a game against the California Golden Bears.

UCLA Bruins coach Mick Cronin watches a game against the California Golden Bears.

“The most important thing for a teacher is for his students to have aptitude or they can’t learn, they can’t apply, so your rate of progress and development is way too slow,” Cronin said, per the Los Angeles Times. “So if a team makes adjustments, we struggle to adjust to instruction on the fly.”

Why not supplement some of these talented young players with more veterans from the transfer portal? At least part of the problem has been name, image and likeness, with Cronin intimating that the Bruins didn’t have enough money to compete for top transfers with other elite programs. UCLA wasn’t publicly connected with many transfers, but one they did recruit heavily was Rutgers transfer Cam Spencer, who eventually committed to UConn.

“We did what we could do,” Cronin said in December. “Is your question, ‘Did we try to get older transfers?’ Absolutely. So did the Reds, but the Dodgers got them.”

All this is happening with the backdrop of the Louisville job all but assured to open this spring. Cronin spent time at Louisville as Rick Pitino’s associate head coach and has been speculated about by several industry sources as a strong candidate to replace Kenny Payne and turn around the Cardinals program. The primary concern about Cronin’s candidacy was a lofty buyout: Cronin has a rare reciprocal buyout, meaning it would cost him as much to leave UCLA for another job as it would cost UCLA to fire him. That number is $20 million through March 31 before dropping to $16 million on April 1. That figure is almost certainly untenable for even a school like Louisville to pay to get Cronin out of his contract, and also why you won’t hear Cronin’s name in hot seat discussions this cycle regardless of how this season goes. But is there a world where a fresh start could be best for everyone involved? Potentially, and that makes the Bruins’ struggles all the more fascinating.

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That said, letting Cronin walk would feel like a shortsighted move. While he may never be a perfect fit in Westwood, Cronin has proven himself to be a high-level coach and had produced three straight teams good enough to contend for Final Four berths before this season. Established winning coaches at high-majors willing to change jobs are in short supply, which is one of the reasons Cronin landed with the Bruins in the first place. But so far, Cronin’s big bet on international talent to sustain the Bruins program in the post-Jaquez era has been a major bust, and seasons like this aren’t taken too kindly in Westwood.