Hernández: Mick Cronin makes his last-ditch effort to try to salvage UCLA's season

UCLA head coach Mick Cronin, left, gestures while talking to guard Lazar Stefanovic.
UCLA coach Mick Cronin talks to guard Lazar Stefanovic during a game against Stanford on Feb. 7. After the Bruins' loss to USC on Saturday, Cronin said he was thoroughly embarrassed and apologized to UCLA fans. (Jeff Chiu / Associated Press)

Mick Cronin was to the point.

“It’s a simple game,” he said. “Team that plays harder usually wins.”

Cronin paused for a beat.

“They played much harder than us. They were more physical. They had humility. They came in looking for redemption.”

Cronin paused again.

“We had no humility, and show me somebody that’s not humble and I’ll show you somebody getting ready to get humbled. We had our worst week of practice of the season. I failed miserably to get my team ready for the fight that was coming today, and I’m thoroughly embarrassed.

“I apologize to the people wearing the four letters.”

Cronin went on this way for more than 11 minutes after UCLA’s deflating 62-56 loss to USC at Pauley Pavilion on Saturday night.

This was more than one of his signature tirades. This was more than an example of his trademark tough love.

This was Cronin’s final effort to salvage the Bruins’ season.

What the Bruins learn from the upset will benefit them in future seasons. Of the eight players in their rotation against the Trojans, four were true freshmen and three were sophomores. But this wasn’t just about next year or the year after.

While Cronin said that whether this season is a success will ultimately be determined by how the Bruins perform next season, he didn’t conceal how much he wanted to be part of March Madness this year.

“I haven’t missed the tournament in 13 years,” Cronin said. “Take a lot of pride in it.”

The defeats to USC and Utah in the last week have reduced the number of ways UCLA could reach the Big Dance to just one.

The Bruins have to win the Pac-12 tournament.

Read more: Boogie Ellis scores 24 as USC surges in second half to stun rival UCLA

To do so, they can’t play another game the way they did Saturday night.

They can’t have a game like that in the conference tournament. They can’t even have a game like that in any of their five remaining regular-season games, as failing to finish in the top four will cost them a first-round bye in the conference tournament.

With a 9-7 record in the Pac-12, the Bruins are tied for fourth place with Colorado and only half a game ahead of sixth-place Cal.

“We’re just not good enough to show up and mail it in,” Cronin said.

How could such a fundamental concept be so difficult to grasp?

“They’re not me,” Cronin said. “They’re not you. They’re kids.

“I mean, I would hope that they were thoroughly embarrassed, and they should be. I just don’t know if it’s like that. There’s certain guys [who are embarrassed]. Other guys go out. I’m going to have four guys out eating and laughing tonight with their girlfriend. That’s just the way it is. Not everybody is Jaime Jaquez.”

Some of Cronin’s players were the big men on their high school campuses less than a year ago. They were celebrated recruits who rarely encountered competitors as talented as themselves.

Which is why Cronin used the result Saturday, as well as the days leading up to it, to explain the invisible line that separates confidence from arrogance.

He pointed specifically to how the team practiced.

“The stuff I had to do yesterday in practice — put guys on the treadmill, yell and scream and run my team the day before you’re playing your rival in front of your biggest crowd of the season — is ridiculous,” Cronin said.

He continued, “When you don’t practice the right way, you don’t practice scoring, you don’t practice taking care of the ball, you’re not sharp, this is exactly what happens. So they know. I told them yesterday this was going to happen.”

Read more: Sloppy defense and poor shooting plague UCLA's starting guards in loss to rival USC

As much as Cronin bemoaned his team’s lack of effort, he didn’t spare himself from criticism.

“I’m gonna hate myself, the job I did,” Cronin said.

At this stage of the year, he couldn’t afford to completely tear down his players. He doesn’t have enough time to build them back up. The Pac-12 tournament is only two weeks away, and the tournament means something.

In Cronin’s mind, the Bruins can still save their season.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.