Mick Cronin has UCLA thriving, driving for 12th men's basketball national championship

Mick Cronin says he buys sunblock in bulk.

Stocks up on sunglasses and keeps multiple hats in his convertible.

So it goes for the bald, fair-skinned basketball coach who almost four years ago moved to Los Angeles from Cincinnati to take over UCLA’s program.

"Sun’s out 340 days a year, man," Cronin told USA TODAY Sports. "Bad weather’s 55 degrees."

With Cronin in charge, the forecast for UCLA’s storied basketball program has turnedperpetually sunny, too. The Bruins are in the Sweet 16 of the men’s NCAA Tournament for the third straight season.

Up next: a rematch against Gonzaga, which at the 2021 Final Four outlasted UCLA in overtime, 93-90.

"We're four games away from hanging a 12th banner,'' Cronin said, referring to UCLA's 11 national championships. "That's how we look at it. That's how we talk about it.''

UCLA coach Mick Cronin instructs guard Amari Bailey. The freshman on Cronin: "Coach says there are two kinds of people, one who gets the job done and one who says 'I tried'. He asked us, 'Who do you want to be?' "
UCLA coach Mick Cronin instructs guard Amari Bailey. The freshman on Cronin: "Coach says there are two kinds of people, one who gets the job done and one who says 'I tried'. He asked us, 'Who do you want to be?' "

By now it’s almost easy to forget that Cronin was widely viewed as a lackluster hire after UCLA fired Steve Alford and was rebuffed by Kentucky’s John Calipari, Virginia’s Tony Bennett, TCU’s Jamie Dixon and Tennessee’s Rick Barnes.

"Things are going great,'' Cronin, 51, said. And he was talking about more than basketball.

How Mick Cronin found happiness in L.A.

The six-year, $28.6 million deal Cronin got when he was signed by UCLA was not enough to ensure his happiness.

Before taking the job, he called his ex-wife, Darlene Taylor, and discussed arguably the most important factor in Cronin leaving Cincinnati. He wanted his daughter Sammi, then 12, to be in Los Angeles, too.

Taylor is the author of "It's Not About Us: A Co-parenting Survival Guide to Taking the High Road,'' released in October.

Yes, she agreed to move despite a strained divorce in 2009.

Cronin said he lives with his girlfriend, Christine, about two miles from where his daughter and stepson live with Taylor. His girlfriend and ex-wife are friends, Cronin reports.

Referring to her divorce from Cronin, Taylor wrote in her book, "you have to figure out how to survive the trip and end the ride together in one piece. Because you've got a beautiful child waiting for you at the end.''

Cronin wrote the book's foreword, which included, "It was not an easy move, to say the least. But we agreed it was best for Sammi.''

Sammi, now a high school student, is expected to be at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas to watch UCLA play Gonzaga and, if the Bruins advance, stay for the Elite Eight matchup. But that's getting ahead of the story.

First, there was the matter of turning around UCLA's basketball program.

Mick Cronin building on the UCLA brand

The job could not be harder than what Cronin inherited at Cincinnati in 2006.

"What I went through in rebuilding Cincinnati played into my divorce,'' he said. "That program was the titanic at the bottom of the ocean. It was dead.''

After four years of rebuilding, Cronin led Cincinnati to nine straight NCAA Tournament appearances. More was expected at UCLA.

But even Cronin's father, Hep, a retired high school coach who won more than 400 games, said he had doubts about whether his defensive-minded son would be a good fit for the Bruins.

"I just felt like no matter where he went, if you’re going to win national titles, you have to score a little bit more,'' Hep Cronin said.

With more athletic players at UCLA than he had at Cincinnati, Cronin junked his matchup zone defense and embraced man-to-man. He also deemphasized his patterned offense and let his players isolate one-on-one.

"That's what a good coach should do, adjust to who you have to beat and adjust to who your players are,'' Hep Cronin said.

During the regular season, UCLA averaged 73.9 points, ranking the Bruins 151st among the 352 Division I teams. But they rank 21st in offensive efficiency.

There also was a dog bone used to inspire scrappy play on defense, which ranks No. 2 in efficiency and in turn fuels the offense. UCLA's surge into the Sweet 16 is more validation of Cronin.

"We started listening to him, we started buying in,'' said David Singleton, a fifth-year senior guard for UCLA. "It took about a couple of months and then we said, 'Hey, what he does, what he says, it works.' "

It's more than X's and O's, said Amari Bailey, a standout freshman guard.

"Coach says there are two kinds of people, one who gets the job done and one who says 'I tried,' " Bailey said. "He asked us, 'Who do you want to be?' And that really just sat with me and gave me perspective just on life."

The cupboard was not bare when Cronin arrived.

He inherited a solid roster and his team's current stars, senior forward Jaime Jaquez Jr. and senior point guard Tyger Campbell. And he brought more talent, including freshman forward Adem Bona and Bailey.

Will UCLA finally win its 12th national title?

But Sonny Vaccaro, a grassroots basketball legend, said UCLA under Cronin has yet to land a star like Ed O'Bannon, who as a senior in 1995 led the Bruins to the school's last national championship.

Cronin was ready with a response.

Senior forward Jaime Jaquez Jr. is a key ingredient to the Bruins' balanced roster.
Senior forward Jaime Jaquez Jr. is a key ingredient to the Bruins' balanced roster.

"I think the question to Sonny would have been, how long would Ed have stayed in school?'' Cronin said. "Would he have lasted as long as he lasted?''

Meaning in today's basketball climate, O'Bannon likely would have bolted for the NBA before his senior year.

"Who’s a better recruit, a one-and-done guy or Tyger Campbell or Jaime Jaquez? But we got two of the best freshmen in the country on our team, and we got a couple of the best seniors in the country. That’s why we’re good. Those guys are really good players.''

Good enough to win the Pac-12 regular-season title for the first time in a decade.

Good enough to win on Thursday against Gonzaga, which made the championship game in 2017 and 2021.

But good enough to win it all despite losing Jaylen Clark, the team's top defensive player, to injury in the regular-season finale?

Of course this is a question Cronin was being asked weeks ago.

"We got a chance,'' he said. "Ain’t no question we got a chance.''

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: UCLA's Mick Cronin thriving in L.A., March Madness as Sweet 16 opens