A Hike Down Memory Lane

As UCLA men’s basketball coach Mick Cronin’s debut season in Westwood unfolds, Daily Bruin Sports took a look at the most recent names to hold his position. The trails below lay out the paths each coach took in the nonconference slate of his first season. See who had a rocky start, and who’s upward trajectory was the sharpest.

Steve Lavin
Steve Lavin was dealt a top-tier hand when he rose up the ranks in Westwood, but it didn’t translate to wins right off the bat.

UCLA opened the season ranked No. 5 in the polls, less than two years removed from the program’s 11th national championship. The talent was there at Lavin’s disposal, but he wasn’t even supposed to be the one calling the shots that season.

Jim Harrick was fired with just weeks to go before the season-opener against Tulsa after he bought a meal for a recruit, and the then-assistant coach Lavin became the interim head coach. In the then-32-year-old’s first game leading the Bruins, they lost to the Golden Hurricane 77-76 at Pauley Pavilion.

UCLA went 5-3 in nonconference play that season, getting blown out by Kansas and Illinois at home while only managing to pick up wins against Cal State Northridge, Jackson State and other non-Power Five teams.

UCLA marginally improved when conference play tipped off, winning seven of its first 11 Pac-10 matchups, but the standout game during that stretch was a historic 48-point loss to Stanford.

One month later, the Bruins got their revenge with a 19-point victory over the Cardinal, sparking a nine-game winning streak to close out the regular season with a Pac-10 title to their name.

UCLA made it to the Elite Eight that March, and while that was as far as the Bruins would go with Lavin at the helm, he led them to six-straight NCAA tournaments and five total trips to the Sweet 16 in seven years.

Steve LavinGraphic by Aileen Nguyen
Ben Howland
The bar was set low for Ben Howland.

The former UCLA men’s basketball coach took over the program in 2003 following the Bruins’ worst season in the previous 52 years. Even so, when Howland’s squad entered halftime of its season opener, UCLA fans were booing.

But the Bruins came back from an 11-point halftime deficit to defeat Vermont by one point – the beginning of a 10-year era under Howland that included seven NCAA tournament appearances and three trips to the Final Four.

UCLA went on to post just a 4-3 nonconference record, with losses coming to Kentucky, UC Santa Barbara and Michigan – all by a margin of four points or fewer.

Howland’s Bruins finished the coach’s debut season 13-17 after getting eliminated in the first round of the Pac-10 tournament by Washington.

But Howland was able to turn things around the next year thanks to an incoming recruiting class that included Jordan Farmar and Arron Afflalo, both of whom started all 29 games as true freshmen and sparked a three-year streak of NCAA Final Four appearances for the Bruins.

The coach finished with a .685 winning percentage during his time in Westwood, including four conference championships – the second-most of any UCLA coach, only behind John Wooden.

Ben HowlandGraphic by Aileen Nguyen
Steve Alford
Steve Alford’s first season with the Bruins was full of wins, but most of them were just empty calories.

Alford went 11-2 in his first nonconference romp with UCLA, posting the best winning percentage in out-of-conference games of any Bruin coach in his debut season. However, his team went 2-2 against Power Five teams during that stretch, picking up a road loss against a Missouri team that would go on to miss the NCAA tournament and a neutral site loss to Duke, which would eventually get upset in that year’s round of 64 by No. 14 seed Mercer.

UCLA narrowly escaped Drexel by five points in its season-opener, but the Bruins went on to win their next seven games by an average margin of 24.6 points. None of those teams made the tournament that March, but wins over Nevada and Northwestern helped Alford prove his team’s worth on a national stage.

A 12-6 record in Pac-12 play was enough for UCLA to secure a bye in the conference tournament, and thanks to Kyle Anderson’s 21 points and 15 rebounds in the championship game against Arizona, the Bruins raised the trophy in Vegas.

UCLA marched into the Sweet 16 two weeks later – the first of the Bruins’ three trips to the Regional Semifinals over Alford’s first four seasons in Westwood.

Steve AlfordGraphic by Aileen Nguyen
Mick Cronin
Mick Cronin’s Bruins have yet to make a statement.

After opening the season with four straight wins, UCLA men’s basketball (8-8, 1-2 Pac-12) went 3-6 through the rest of its nonconference slate to finish 7-6 – exactly where it ended up entering Pac-12 play the year before.

This season, however, some of those losses were particularly bad.

UCLA surrendered a 13-point lead to Hofstra in its first loss of the season, eventually falling 88-78, and then came as close as 52-51 against BYU before losing by 15 points. The Bruins’ loss to Cal State Fullerton marked the Titans’ first win over a Power Five opponent since 2011.

The UCLA defense has allowed teams to go on long scoring runs all season.

Through the first 16 games of the Cronin era, UCLA has given up an average of 68.7 points per game – good for the No. 179 scoring defense in the country. In comparison, Cronin’s legacy at Cincinnati was marked by seven straight seasons with a team ranked in the top 25 in scoring defense.

The Bruins’ inconsistent start may be partially attributed to a first-year coach teaching a young team a new system, but that excuse won’t get Cronin very far in Westwood.

Mick CroninGraphic by Aileen Nguyen

Read more here: https://features.dailybruin.com/2020/01/15/hike-down-memory-lane/
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