Dressed in a UCLA letter jacket replicating the same one late coach John Wooden once wore in his heyday, Mick Cronin fielded questions from reporters about his team's surprise 2021 men's NCAA Tournament run — a No. 11 seeded team that fell to the bubble now among the Sweet 16 teams.
"Nobody has 11 banners," Cronin said of Wooden's 10 national championship banners that hang in Pauley Pavilion, alongside the most recent title in 1995. Those banners also hang over the coaches that have followed Wooden at one of the sport's most storied basketball programs.
For the 49-year-old Cronin, who led Cincinnati to a Sweet 16 in 2012, it's not pressure. It's a challenge.
In a year that's spelled the death of the blue-blood, Cronin and his Bruins (20-9) have been the outlier — storming back from 14 points down against Tom Izzo's Michigan State Spartans and ousting No. 6 seed Brigham Young and upstart Abilene Christian to get to the second weekend of the tournament.
“The noise is louder here,” Cronin told USA TODAY Sports when he was hired by the Bruins in 2019. "Just like it’s louder at Kentucky, louder at North Carolina and louder at Duke. It’s a (blue-blood). I deflect criticism and focus on the job. …how it looks on the outside – that this is an impossible job to please the fans – trust me when I say I’ll go 10 times harder on myself if I can’t win."
Yet Cronin has won so far in two seasons in Westwood, despite adverse circumstances. UCLA finished a win short of the Pac-12 regular-season title last season with a depleted roster. This season the Bruins lost a signed five-star recruit in the summer to the G-League before losing the team's second leading scorer, Chris Smith, to injury eight games into this season.
Meanwhile, those heavily-hyped fellow blue-blood teams are no longer dancing. Duke was the preseason No. 8 team in the Ferris Mowers Coaches Poll and missed the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1995. North Carolina, the preseason No. 16 team, lost by 23 in the first round to Wisconsin as a No. 8 seed. Kentucky, the preseason No. 9 team, finished 9-16 and wasn't anywhere near the postseason in the worst season under coach John Calipari.
BRACKETS: Check your men's and women's NCAA Tournament pool standings
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