Utah basketball faces UCLA on Sunday with the shadow of John Wooden looming over the Bruins

UCLA coach Mick Cronin gestures during the second half of the team's NCAA college basketball game against Southern California on Saturday, Jan. 11, 2020, in Los Angeles. USC won 74-63. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

Los Angeles • The biggest problem facing UCLA basketball is the same as it’s always been.

John Wooden won ten national championships in 12 seasons from 1964-75. Every coach to have followed the late, legendary Hall of Famer feels that aura hovering over Pauley Pavilion at all times. Winning the whole thing is the standard. That is the annual expectation, and that is totally unreasonable.

Steve Lavin was a UCLA assistant under Jim Harrick for five seasons before taking over in 1996. He won the Pac-10 and went to an Elite Eight in 1997. His Bruins went to the Sweet 16 four more times, but finished 2002-03 at 10-19. Fired.

Ben Howland went to the national-championship game in 2006, and the Final Four in 2007 and 2008. That three-year stretch was the high-water mark, but Howland won 69 percent of his games and, in his final season in 2013, the Pac-12 regular-season title. Fired.

Steve Alford’s hiring in the wake of Howland felt odd and ill-fitting from the start. Still, three trips to the Sweet 16, a .663 overall winning percentage, including .611 against the Pac-12. His Lonzo Ball-fueled 2017 team was electrifying. Not only fired last season, but fired midseason after stumbling out of the gate at 7-6.

“Coach Wooden set a standard that’s unparalleled in the sport, so it makes for an most-unique standard of excellence,” Lavin told The Salt Lake Tribune by phone Friday afternoon. “I was fortunate to work for five years as an assistant, so it wasn’t as though there was any surprise when I took over. I didn’t really see it as pressure, I just understood what comes with the territory as the coach of UCLA.”

FILE - In this undated photo, UCLA coach John Wooden sits on the sideline during an NCAA college basketball game. New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick may seem like one-of-a-kind, and he will set himself apart with a win Sunday in Super Bowl 51, which would make him the first coach to capture five Super Bowl rings. But he has much in common with Tom Landry, Chuck Noll, John Wooden and any other coach to put himself among the Mount Rushmore of the best to ever run a team. (AP Photo/File)

Mick Cronin is now shepherding UCLA, which is home to the University of Utah for a Super Bowl Sunday matinee (1 p.m., Fox Sports 1). Cronin’s arrival in Westwood came only after others were offered the job and a high level of dysfunction within the athletic department revealed itself.

John Calipari took a reported six-year, $45 million offer and parlayed it into what is essentially a lifetime contract at Kentucky. UCLA and its donor base couldn’t get TCU head coach Jamie Dixon’s approximately $9 million buyout taken care of so the North Hollywood native could come home. Rick Barnes’ $5 million buyout at Tennessee? Same thing. Outgoing UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero and associate AD Josh Rebholz whiffed hard on candidates a handful of times before Cronin was finally introduced.

In the middle of all this, a damning Mercury News report last week revealed that UCLA athletics finished fiscal year 2019 with a $19.8 million deficit, which will be dealt with via an interest-bearing loan from central campus.

Alford did not leave the cupboard bare for Cronin. His roster is not devoid of talent, but it has been a struggle at 11-10 through 21 games. The Bruins have home losses to Hofstra and Cal State Fullerton, and a neutral-court loss to a Cole Anthony-less North Carolina team and could miss the postseason entirely.

Conversely, UCLA won at Washington before the Huskies fell apart in the wake of Quade Green’s academic ineligibility, and enters Sunday coming off its best win of the season, Thursday’s 72-68 decision over 20th-ranked Colorado.

“It’s a little bit of the same thing [as USC] in that their frontcourt guys are big and athletic," said Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak. "They’re good; one of those long, physical teams that rebound.

“The theme kind of stays the same with that,” he added. "We’ll have an extra day to prepare for it, try to come up with another good game plan, but I always thought when you come into these buildings, if you get caught up in defensive transition. It’s a problem.”

UCLA guard Chris Smith, left, tries to shoot as California guard Kareem South defends during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Sunday, Jan. 19, 2020, in Los Angeles. UCLA won 50-40. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

Cronin is a slug-it-out, defensive-minded head coach, which doesn’t exactly fit with the glitz-and-glam forever associated with UCLA. Cronin’s first Bruins team ranks 182nd nationally and 10th in the Pac-12 in defensive efficiency. As a point of reference, none of Cronin’s last 10 Cincinnati teams finished lower than 44th in defensive efficiency. The rest of the Bruins’ defensive metrics are unbecoming of a Cronin defense. In short, Cronin’s calling card as a coach hasn’t followed him westward just yet. If he can’t get that going, he’s going to be in big-picture trouble sooner than later. But for now, Lavin suggests that the new guy should just enjoy the opportunity.

“The blessing of working at UCLA was the inherent expectations, because that’s what makes it so special," Lavin said. "I was grateful when I stepped on campus, I was grateful when I left that campus, and I was grateful for everything that happened in between.”

UCLA head coaches do not get the benefit of the doubt, but in fairness, first-year coaches are sometimes trying to fit square pegs in round holes. Although, a lot of those square pegs are young, and it they prove moldable, Cronin’s reclamation project becomes easier. Either way, Cronin needs a recruiting cycle or three to get pieces that fit his system, and then everyone can start fairly judging him.

The class of 2020’s No. 1-rated point guard, 6-foot-5 McDonald’s All-American Daishen Nix, arrives this summer. Nix is the seventh-highest rated UCLA recruit of the 247sports era, behind six guys who eventually made it to the NBA. Four-star shooting guard Will McClendon is Cronin’s 2021 commit to this point.

UCLA may no longer be the blueblood it paints itself as, but there is no reason it should be continually ceding its place as the Pac-12’s premier program to Arizona and, increasingly in recent years, Oregon. The responsibility of getting UCLA back to a position of power now belongs to Cronin.

"At some point, I don’t know when it is, if they can find a coach and stay with that coach, then I think they have a chance,” Lavin said.


At Pauley Pavilion, Los Angeles

Tipoff: Sunday, 1 p.m. MST

TV: Fox Sports 1

Radio: 700 AM

Series history: Utah leads, 8-7

Last meeting: Utah, 92-81 (2019)

About the Utes: Utah led at USC Thursday night by two with 1:04 to play, but couldn’t hold on, falling to the Trojans, 56-52. Timmy Allen played under the weather, finishing with 13 points on 5-for-20 shooting from the floor and 0-for-4 from 3-point range … Both Gach sat Thursday night with a knee injury. He dressed and went through warmups as a game time decision … The Utes are currently 10th in the Pac-12 at 3-5, one game behind 4-4, sixth-place UCLA going into Saturday’s games … Freshman center Branden Carlson scored 11 points against USC, giving him back-to-back double-digit scoring games for the first time in his career … Utah has won three straight against UCLA, dating back to an 84-78 win in Salt Lake City on Feb. 22, 2018. David Collette led four Utes in double figures with 21 points in the win.

About the Bruins: UCLA is coming off its best win of the season, a 72-68 decision over No. 20 Colorado at Pauley Pavilion. Junior guard Chris Smith scored a game-high 30 points to go along with nine rebounds … Smith, who has played in all 87 games since arriving in Westwood, leads UCLA in scoring at 13.0 points per game. He is the only Bruin scoring in double figures through 21 games … Led by Smith’s nine boards, UCLA was plus-10 on the glass against the Buffaloes. The Bruins are one of the nation’s top rebounding teams with an average margin of plus-7 for the season.

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