UCLA men's basketball thriving under Mick Cronin with some help from a dog bone

Josh Peter

LOS ANGELES – How Mick Cronin went from being perceived as an underwhelming hire by UCLA almost four years ago to the coach who has revived the school’s basketball program is best illustrated by, well, a dog bone.

It measures two feet long. 

It travels with the second-ranked Bruins.

It represents what Cronin has instilled in his players, who along with the dog bone are in Las Vegas this week competing for the Pac-12 tournament title and possibly a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. 

“When they throw the food out at night from a restaurant, the law of the alley says that the hungry dog’s going to get the bone,’’ Cronin told USA TODAY Sports. “A hungry dog’s going to go fight and get the bone and take all of this clawing and scratching because he’s starving.

“That’s how you have to be as a team.’’

UCLA coach Mick Cronin instructs guard Amari Bailey during the first half of the team's game against Washington at Pauley Pavilion presented by Wescom.

Under Cronin, UCLA’s effort is measured by deflections – not just deflected passes, but also blocked shots, the recovery of blocked shots, charges taken and steals.

Here’s where the so-called "deflection bone'' comes into play.

Each game, the player with the most deflections gets to sign the bone. At the end of the season, the player with the most deflections gets to keep the bone. 

It’s more than a gimmick. 

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UCLA's defensive approach: 'Try to make something happen' 

T.J. Wolf, UCLA’s director of player personnel, is in charge of tracking deflections during games. He is under almost as much scrutiny as the players.

“After every single game, everyone’s arguing over who got more deflections,’’ said UCLA senior Jaime Jaquez Jr., “or how T.J. missed deflections that people had.’’

Said Tyger Campbell, UCLA’s senior point guard, “If I get a deflection, I’m going to look over there to make sure they (log it). …every play on defense is being tracked, so you try to make something happen.’’

Here's what happening: UCLA ranks No. 2 nationally in defensive efficiency, 17th in turnovers forced and 28th in steals.

The results: Take the the Bruins' game against Kentucky in mid-December, when they forced 18 turnovers on their way to a 63-53 victory over the then-13th ranked Wildcats. Afterward, Kentucky coach John Calipari said, "When they started bullying us a little bit, the game slipped.'' And of his team's 18 turnovers against the Bruins, Calipari said, "most of it was rough play we couldn't bust through.''

It’s clear the dog bone helps inspire the Bruins as they hustle for deflections, which Cronin uses to evaluate his team’s performance.

“It’s a direct reflection of effort,’’ he said.

Cronin said he learned the value of deflections as an assistant under Rick Pitino at Louisville from 2001 to 2003. During Cronin’s tenure as head coach at Cincinnati from 2006 to 2019, he led his team to nine consecutive tournament appearances and introduced the coveted dog bone.

By now, Cronin knows how many deflections a team must amass to virtually assure a win.

How UCLA holds players accountable

The magic number for victory is 40.

It starts with individual effort. 

At halftime, every player’s name is on the whiteboard in the locker room next to their deflection total. Same thing after the game, when Wolf adds the number of each player’s deflections to a score sheet he hands Cronin.

Jaquez won the dog bone in Cronin’s inaugural season and the following season. Myles Johnson, a center, won it last season. Now Jaylen Clark, a junior guard, is the current leader. Clark, unfortunately, was injured in the team's defeat of Arizona in the final game of the regular season and will miss at least the Pac-12 tournament. 

The more important thing for Cronin is evaluating what the Bruins do collectively.

During the 2019-20 season, Cronin’s first season at UCLA, the Bruins reached that 40-deflection total just once. Those totals jumped when the team reached the Final Four in 2021 and made the Sweet 16 last season.

Headed into UCLA’s game last week against Arizona State, the Bruins had 12 games with at least 40 deflections. They won the Pac-12 regular season championship for the first time in a decade.

The hungriest dog of all might be Cronin.

Mick Cronin didn't initially top UCLA's list

When UCLA fired Steve Alford during the 2018-19 season, the school embarked on a humbling coaching search.

Calipari turned down the school’s offer.

UCLA also engaged in talks with Tony Bennett of Virginia, Jamie Dixon of TCU and Rick Barnes of Tennessee. And struck out again.

When the search reached Day 100, UCLA hired Cronin. He was viewed as a disappointment by fans who wanted a big-name coach. But most of the Bruin faithful were unfamiliar with “the law of the alley’’ and the dog bone and Cronin’s core.

Maybe not as elegant as John Wooden's Pyramid of Success he used while winning 10 championships at UCLA between 1964 and 1975. But it fits.

“I take a lot of pride in how hard I work,’’ Cronin said.

But would his style of play be fun enough to keep UCLA fans happy? At his introductory press conference at UCLA, Cronin said, “Here’s how I spell fun, W-I-N.’’

And so the Bruins are winning, and appear to be having fun as they chase deflections and a dog bone. It's something for Cronin skeptics to chew on.