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UCLA men's basketball coach Mick Cronin talked to reporters before Tuesday's practice, sharing his thoughts on Jaylen Clark and Peyton Watson's improvement throughout all the disruptions to the season, what he thinks Myles Johnson needs to do to take the next step and what he believes the impact of playing in an empty stadium at home is on his players.

MICK CRONIN

Jaylen and Peyton coming on strong, how do you manage to get them minutes when Jaime gets back?

I don’t think we’re nearly good enough for me to be worried about minutes played. I hope that that becomes a problem—right now I’m just trying to figure out how to win a game. We’re 1-2 in our last two and they were both at home [huh?], so that would be my answer to that, but it’s exciting that both of those guys are improving because they’re our two best athletes and I think that it shades a weakness of ours at times with our lack of athleticism on the court, so longterm for us to get where we want to go, I think that both of those guys are going to have to be factors for us, they’re going to have to be trusted to be out there and be solid on both ends of the floor and use their athleticism because you run into certain games, certain teams where we’re going to need to match up.

Jaylen's offensive explosion in the first half on Saturday something you saw coming?

Well, again, I thought he played really well, having played a little bit, you and I have different versions of explosion, but he has worked extremely hard on shooting the ball and back to what I was trying to say—we were rushed for time after the game—I told you in the preseason he was our most improved player and the concussion happened, then he got horribly sick, then we got shut down by COVID. His whole nonconference season got messed up, so hopefully he can stay healthy here because what you saw in the Oregon State game is how he was playing in the preseason, so I think that could be huge for us going forward.

How dangerous is a team that's in last place and hasn't won in a month? How do you make sure the team is focused?

That’s what they pay me for, buddy. To get the job done. Everybody’s dangerous. You know, my message to our team—especially, we just learned a great lesson with a loss against Oregon—is in conference play, every game’s a bloodbath, so if you don’t come ready to play from the opening tip, you give another team confidence as Mike Tyson-Buster Douglas [showed], it’s hard to turn the tide sometimes, so we’ve got to worry about us and our mission, what we’re trying to accomplish and our focus and realize that every game’s separate and we need to focus on what we need to do to defend Utah, what we need to do to execute and score against Utah and make sure that we play with physicality and toughness and improve our defensive rebounding as well. Their record may be relevant to you, it’s not to me and it’s my job to make sure it’s not even on the minds of our players—we try to focus on what they’re good at and what they’re capable of because in college basketball, on one night anything can happen—all you’ve got to do is look at what happened to Baylor last week twice at home.

Matching up with 7-foot big man Brandon Carlson?

Well, it depends on if he plays. He had appendicitis, so he did not play yesterday against Arizona State, but he’s a developing player—tall, thin kid coming in but he’s developed his strength in his offense and his shooting, he’s just been more aggressive offensively for them and has been their leading scorer, has been a factor for them, so the difference, whenever you play a team that their five man can shoot threes, it affects your pick-and-roll coverage and your rotations, it puts a lot more pressure on you, you have to make decisions, but we’re not sure if he’ll play.

Cody only has 11 rebounds in four games, need more from him and Myles?

Uh, yes and yes. How’s that for pointed answers today for you, Ben. Yes and yes. You know, with Cody, some of it is just getting his game legs back where he can put that extra—he made a big time block in the second half against Oregon State where I said that was the guy that was playing for us in the NCAA tournament. So it’s a matter of getting his game legs back as he goes and making sure that although he’s improved shooting the ball, I give him the Magic Johnson speech—as Magic improved shooting the ball he didn’t stop being probably the best point guard ever just because he learned how to shoot an open three, so you’ve got to build on your game and add to your game, not change your game, but part of it is his legs, his conditioning. His rebounding is spring and pursuit and extra effort and how much he’s really got his game legs back, you know, I’m not sure yet but it’s definitely something we’ve talked to him about.

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First full conference road trip of the season, preparing for bonding experience in spare time?

Well, I don't know what spare time you're alluding to, Mike. We only get 20 hours a week, we don't sit around all week at the campfire singing songs, if that's what you're asking. Our guys got class at UCLA, they gotta get treatment, they got strength and conditioning. Right now, I want extra time focused on treatment. We spent 21 days together in a hotel last year, so we're pretty well bonded. If you're worried about stuff like that at this point, you got problems. It's not like – we don't have a lot of spare time. I'm more concerned with getting our rhythm back from a three-week layoff, to be honest with you, in the middle of the season. I think it affected USC, I think it affected us. I'm sure our guys – I think what will help us is to run out of the tunnel and play a game in front of fans. I think it's hugely demoralizing to our guys to play games in empty arenas and there's 80,000 people at the Rams' game yesterday. So I think our guys will be energized, I think I know they will, to see what we run out in front of other people and get to play a game in front of fans.

How does Myles Johnson get more involved on offense?

Um, I guess my question to you would be what would you term effective? Cause what I would term effective would be him being a more joint screener, a more effective screener. To me, that's the easiest way and that's something we need. And his rolling, too. He needs to improve not only on his screening, but his rolling to the basket. And to me, for Myles, I think people have – he developed a personality of a guy 'I'll just be tall and grab a rebound.' And he never developed in the other areas of the game. He's been challenged on that every day, I can promise you, Tracy. He's been challenged on it, he's been shown it and he plays for a guy who didn't grow up on third base, so he definitely gets the speech that playing with your heart instead of your mind and your energy and your effort – you gotta post up like a man, not a mouse. He's getting all that stuff, I promise you.

Updates on Jaime, David and Kenneth?

Hold on, you hit me with a lot of guys. Jaime, much improved, much improved. Hopefully we'll see how he is, we're getting ready to practice, so hopefully he'll be able to go full go. David, I'm hoping that he'll be ready for Thursday but I don't have that answer. I think he's got a protocol test today. Kenny's sore, his ankle's sore, but he practiced yesterday.

Myles' role changed with Cody back?

No, I don't think so. I think it's the same with Myles. Getting him to exercise and implementing his size on every possession, whether it's on the backboard, the defensive end. Like to me, he should block more shots, to me, he should get the ball more in the paint, but you have to want the ball more in the paint. My first year with Cincinnati, '96 I was on the staff with Danny Fortson as a player and he was 6'6", they listed him at 6'8". But I can promise you he got the ball, he got the ball. And it was because the way he rolled, the way he posted, the way he went after the ball, it was a personality thing. So really, that's what I'm trying to help transform with Myles. If he wants to have a basketball career, he's gotta challenge himself because he's gotta get outside cerebral Myles and he's just gotta play with his heart and his energy and fight and fire, can't be a nice guy. So his nice guy – and he's such a nice guy – and his intellect, I think is hurting him in basketball.

Talk to the guys about dealing with empty arenas? Have to push guys harder without crowd noise and atmosphere?

What I try to remind them of, I try to always use things as a teachable moment, Sam. For instance, we have guys that are in the NBA next year and what they're gonna find out is the coach may not even speak to them if they're sitting on the bench as 12th man and teammates may not even talk to them. The real world isn't fair and how are you gonna react to that? Are you gonna go into a shell, you gonna start hanging out late at night, doing things you shouldn't do, feeling sorry for yourself? So this is just one example of something that hasn't gone our way. Are we gonna let it affect us? Because that's how life is. The people that persevere in life are the people that are able to fight through much tougher problems than no fans at games. They can fight through much harder things going on around them and extenuating circumstances, be it tragedy, sickness, health, loss, whatever, personal loss. But our guys, I always try to relate it to what's gonna happen to them when they try to play professionally, wherever that may be. They could be playing somewhere with some coach that's drinking vodka, smoking a cigarette, doesn't speak english. And I've had a lot of guys play for me, and they're gonna have to deal with that. They might have to deal with all kinds of – and I present all the realities, examples that guys that played for me go through. So you can't let it affect you. You gotta control your effort, you gotta control your attitude and we gotta stay focused on our mission and not let that become a distraction. Because whoever came up with the term 'excuses are for losers' was brilliant and I believe in that. So to me, you either get the job done, or you die trying, that's how I look at it. 

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