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UCLA men's basketball coach Mick Cronin talked to reporters Monday morning before practice, previewing the Bruins' upcoming game against Arizona, highlighting what makes Bennedict Mathurin and Christian Koloko so special and talking about the impact of having fans back at Pauley Pavilion for the first time in eight weeks.

MICK CRONIN

NCAA tournament seeding importance with possibly having more fans at San Diego or San Francisco sites?

I have no idea that whatever you just said the tournament locations are. I did not know that; haven’t thought of that at all. I’m thinking about strategy, my team and our practice—we’ve got three games this week. And to be honest with you, I’m just hoping we make the NCAA tournament and we’re healthy, but to your point, that would be all great. I mean, I’m not discounting it; it would be great. I remember talks I had with Ben Howland, who was a friend of mine, and he used to talk about the importance of the things you’re alluding to. But that’s the furthest [thing from my mind]—I mean, that’s all great, but I have zero control over any of that, so I just try to stay focused on my team. That’s the stuff my Dad thinks about, he’s all over that stuff, but I’ve reprimanded him so much that he doesn’t bring it up to me. But I know he talks about it all the time.

Biggest thing that needs to go well to beat Arizona?

We’ve got to score more points than them, which is going to be a task. They’re good in all phases, so they can beat you with their defense, they can beat you with their offense, and they can also beat you with their rebounding, so the thing that sticks out to me the most is when I got the job in the spring of 2019, I went out to Sierra Canyon and I remember seeing Koloko and he was there and they were all working out—obviously I was watching young guys and meeting with coach Chevalier, but anyway, his development for two years under Sean and now with Tommy, he has become a pro prospect and what I learned when I was very young and had a full head of hair with coach Huggins, size around the rim eliminates mistakes—we had it at Cincinnati a lot when we had it with Kenyon Martin and we had two one year, we were No. 1 in the country all year, we had a guy named Jermaine Tate, whose son plays for the Rockets and Kenyon Martin’s son plays for the Rockets, it’s ironic, but anyway, I learned that quick, size matters, shot-blocking matters, UConn did it with Jim Calhoun forever, so they can beat you with their rebounding and their size, different ways to win games but I would say Koloko’s improvement since I saw him at Sierra Canyon to now really, really stands out to me.

Playing differently under Lloyd or just team becoming more veteran?

Sure, I mean, coach Lloyd has his own style of the things they do offensively and defensively just from a stylistic standpoint, but they’ve got sophomores and juniors, I knew last year when we were playing them that they were going to be a problem this year, you could just see they were close, they were just a little too young, they couldn’t sustain the whole 40 minutes, there was no doubt that Sean made a concerted effort to get away from the one-and-done and get some guys that were going to be there and Tommy’s obviously added Larsson and Ballo in the portal; see, the portal allow you to really—and I’m not really sure No. 5, Kier, I think, I don’t want to mess his name up but he’s really good, so they added three guys via the portal to guys that were taught how to win and went through the rigors—they were a tournament team last year, but they’ve obviously gone to a whole new level with that, so guys get better, they improve and obviously coach Lloyd has done a tremendous job.

Comparisons between Lloyd's Arizona and Gonzaga? Help that you played Gonzaga in scouting Arizona? Similarities?

What’s similar is that they push the pace, but I would say they’re a better rebounding team and shot-blocking team. Yeah, they run some stuff that’s similar but their personnel’s obviously totally different. Gonzaga so much plays through Drew Timme this year, you know, where Arizona, you would say Mathurin’s probably their best offensive player but I would say that they’re much more of a balanced team, Arizona, that is, where—I mean, Gonzaga’s guys can score, but you kind of know they’re going to try to go through Timme in the low post, so in that area they’re different; Arizona’s more of a passing, ball-movement team even though Gonzaga does it but they still have the, with Timme down there, I’d say that separates them the most.

How do you stop Arizona from dominating in the paint?

Try not to give up layups. It’s not like they’re pounding it in the low post with the Mobley brothers and Chevez Goodwin, so most of theirs is off of their offensive flow. Now, Tubelis and Koloko can score in the low post, but they don’t just pound it inside, so that’s not how they play, but I would say an underrated factor with them is blocking out because Mathurin rebounds it at the two spot, so whenever a team rebounds the ball at four positions—because Terry’s a long athlete—that’s a problem, so with their stating lineup, they play four very good offensive rebounders, so that adds to their points in the paint. I would say that’s their secret weapon offensively.

Playing this game on a Tuesday after road trips for both teams? Rather play them back when you played Long Beach?

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Oh, yeah. Well, to be honest, I would have liked to play them on a Saturday and had College GameDay in Westwood, if you're really asking me when I'd have liked to done it. But if the Pac-12 would have asked me my opinion in the summer, which they're not going to, and I don't blame them, by the way, they shouldn't be asking any coach, but I'd have gave them my opinion of how good Arizona was going to be. When they got the transfers, had everybody back, hired a good coach, to me there was no doubt that they were going to have a top team in the country. So I would've put in to have the game on a Saturday and try to have College GameDay. Cause I'm sure you know both games were scheduled for Thursdays. Am I correct on that? Yeah. To me, I would've liked to have them on a Saturday where we could've had the game on GameDay.

Highest-ranked opponent you've had in Pauley for six, seven years...

No. Well first of all Bruce, sorry to interrupt you, we played Villanova to start the season.

Conference things on the line, deal with it while also managing the day-to-day stuff? Seem different?

It seems different that Arizona's better than most teams you're gonna play all year. But other than that, we're gonna play again next week, we may play again in March, we could potentially play three more times. So the thing that's different is they're better than most teams you're gonna prepare for. So that would be the difference to me. But I think obviously it's great for both programs, great for Pac-12, hopefully it's great for ticket sales for us.

Tyger's thumb? Dictate tempo against an Arizona team that likes to run?

I'd like Tyger to be at 100%. I don't know, Ben, if anybody is at this point. I'm sure Arizona's dealing with Tubelis' ankle, I can't remember which guy, somebody took a really hard fall for their team yesterday. We had – Tyger took a hard fall at Utah. So look, everybody's banged up a little bit. I don't know where he whacked his thumb, but he's been doing it, so it's not his first time dealing with it. So hopefully he's feeling great on Tuesday night. As far as – you said...

Dictating pace?

Yeah, I think your defense dictates pace, you gotta be able to stop them. For us, we try to run off of stops, so that would be – you're asking if we stop them, we have four guys that push the ball when we rebound. So no, we're not gonna change who we are.

Mathurin a player of the year candidate? What makes him so good and how do you stop him?

Well he can really shoot the ball, he's got size and athleticism. He's a great offensive rebounder and he's a high-level shooter so obviously you don't want to let him catch fire from behind the line. I think there's times him and Kriisa can really shoot the ball. With Ben, he's a high-level athlete with size as well. You could see last year that he had it, it was just gonna be a matter of experience with him. And I don't really look at that stuff but my staff tells me he's on the draft boards, I can see why with his athleticism and his ability to shoot the ball. But I love his offensive rebounding as well. See, guys that play hard, you can tell – a guy like him, you don't have to tell him to go after the ball. Like, you watch the film – if you don't block him out, he's gonna get it.

Feel like you're back after the long pause? Back to normal?

Hey look man, we're just trying to get better, you know? With that stuff, Bruce, maybe it'll help us later that we did have such a long time out of our gym. Even our non-COVID guys, when we were deemed in a high-risk situation cause we have double digits in COVID, they locked everybody out that didn't have it. So maybe that'll help us cause it saves wear and tear on your body, maybe that'll help you come March. But I don't know, man. To be honest with you Bruce, you've talked to me enough, I'm not a big excuse guy. So gotta find a way to get in rhythm and get the job done. Everybody's dealing with stuff, like I said, so maybe let's just say we're fresh because we had a few weeks off, we're fresher than other teams. So there's always another side to the coin, right? So we'll see. My goal is, Bruce, if you can stay healthy, that's the most important thing, and do everything you can in the regular season to try to win your regular season and get a high seed, but March is what matters.

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