Mick Cronin arrived at UCLA with a reputation as a defensive savant. Known for making other teams uncomfortable, the coach kept floor moppers and trainers as busy as his players given the need to wipe up all that sweat and bandage all those knees bruised from diving on the court.
The Bruins haven’t disappointed in Cronin’s first 3½ seasons, forcing a flurry of turnovers and routinely holding opponents well below their season scoring averages.
The thing is, they might be just as good — if not better — on offense.
Ken Pomeroy, a foremost expert on college basketball analytics, ranked UCLA’s adjusted defensive efficiency at No. 6 in the country on the eve of the 10th-ranked Bruins’ game against USC on Thursday evening at Pauley Pavilion. Their offense? That checked in at No. 7.
It’s nothing new for the coach whose teams have become a dual threat. Since his arrival in Westwood, each of Cronin’s offenses had topped his defenses, according to Pomeroy’s metrics, before this season — when they are essentially locked in a dead heat.
“When I was at Cincinnati,” Cronin recently cracked, referring to his previous coaching stop, “they called me to clinics to talk on defense; now I’m going to get called for offense.”
An opposite trend has held true for Andy Enfield’s Trojans. Hailed as the architect of a high-flying “Dunk City” attack while at Florida Gulf Coast, Enfield has built his recent USC teams largely on the strength of rugged defenses.
The Trojans are holding opponents this season to 38.2% shooting — a figure that ranks No. 19 in the nation — while averaging 5.7 blocks per game, tied for No. 13 nationally.
That defense will need to be in full lockdown mode for USC (11-4 overall, 3-1 Pac-12) to beat the Bruins (13-2, 4-0) in what amounts to a nearly must-win cross-town rivalry game for the Trojans’ NCAA tournament hopes.
The challenge will be formidable against an offense that features the best ball movement of the Cronin era. Point guard Tyger Campbell leads a lineup filled with willing passers, top scorer Jaime Jaquez Jr. as likely to give the ball to a teammate as he is to take it strong to the basket.
In every game this season, the Bruins have committed fewer turnovers than their opponent, their plus-7.5 turnover margin per game ranking No. 3 in the nation. Every time they go to throw a pass, a team mantra about committing turnovers might stick in the back of their minds.
“You’re either soft or a bad player,” Cronin said of the saying he makes his players repeat. “Really good players don’t turn the ball over unless they’re lazy, they’re gambling, they’re making bad decisions, but when you have the ball, you have to be responsible for the whole team.”
Cronin said he wasn’t pleased with his team’s offensive efficiency during its last trip as it adjusted to playing without freshman guard Amari Bailey because of lingering discomfort in his left foot. Bailey is also expected to sit out the game against the Trojans, but Cronin said “it’s not anything that’s going to affect his career,” meaning it’s not supposed to keep him out long term.
The Bruins wiped out a late nine-point deficit against Washington State last week by holding the Cougars without a field goal over the last 7 minutes 23 seconds while maximizing their own offensive possessions. UCLA made five of its last eight shots and sprinkled in four free throws.
“We understand to have a good defense, you have to have a good offense, and part of that is taking care of the ball and getting great shots,” Jaquez said. “So on offense, what we try to do is move the ball and try to get the best shot possible, and once that happens, it gives us time to set back our defense. And I think that’s a recipe for success.”
Defense has never abandoned UCLA during a 10-game winning streak that’s the fourth-longest in the nation, the Bruins holding opponents to 58.1 points per game and 29.1% shooting from three-point range. Junior guard Jaylen Clark said communication about assignments has improved and the six freshmen in the rotation have learned proper positioning.
“It helps a lot when everybody’s finally getting under the system and knows where to be,” Clark said. “We don’t gotta necessarily pull and make sure somebody’s in the right spot. Like, all the younger guys already know ‘I gotta be there,’ if you know what I mean, so everything just flows smoothly.”
USC’s defense has also been a savior for a team that has experienced wildly vacillating success on its three-pointers. In the four games in which they have made at least nine three-pointers — three wins plus a narrow loss to Wisconsin — the Trojans have shot 46.7% as opposed to 25.1% in every other game.
Redshirt junior Joshua Morgan has fortified the interior defense by blocking 42 shots — 13 more than Isaiah Mobley, USC’s leader in that category, logged all last season.
“They defend the rim really well,” Cronin said. “Since [Enfield’s] been here, it’s really hard to score around the basket against them.”
It seems perceptions might be changing about both coaches in the rivalry.
“He flipped,” Cronin said of his USC counterpart with a smile. “He’s doing defensive clinics now.”