Leave it to a guy who has become famous for his “mean face” to coin an expression for how close-knit the Bearcats basketball team is this year.
“We’re a love village,” said Justin Jackson with a grin.
That gave Mick Cronin a big laugh when I passed along Jackson’s comment, but there’s no doubt he would agree. Cronin says he’s never been closer to his players in 11 years as a college head coach.
“I respect them so much, and they know it, because of how hard they play,” said Cronin. “That’s what we try to be all about – control what we can control and don’t let other people define us. They’ve really bought in to that part of what I try to instill in our program more than any guys that I’ve coached.”
But at the age of 42, with more than a decade of head coaching experience under his belt, Cronin has changed too.
“Only a fool would not try to become a better coach every year,” Mick told me. “With experience hopefully comes a tad bit of wisdom, and also maybe a tad bit of patience. You understand that the game is not all about you, it’s about the players. I think the more you make it about them, the harder they’re going to play, the more they’re going to play to win, and the more coachable they’re going to be. At the end of the day, that’s really what this is all about – their education and helping young people grow up. Obviously you have to win games and we’re all competitors, but I really think that’s the way to win.”
“He wants the best out of everybody,” said Jackson. “That’s the reason why I came here. You can tell that he wants the best for you – not just in basketball but in being a better person and a better man. That’s what I wanted to be.”
One thing I’ve found interesting about this team is how the players react to criticism. Our broadcasting location is frequently close to the Bearcats bench and even in those situations where Coach Cronin is reading players the riot act, they rarely seem to get upset.
“We all know that it’s his love for the game,” said Sean Kilpatrick. “For that five seconds that he blows you up, you shouldn’t take it like he’s going to take you out of the game for a long time – he’s trying to teach you. At the end of the day, he still loves you and he’s going to get his message across.”
“He’s a winner and that just shows how much he wants to win,” said Jackson. “Every coach has a different way of expressing that. Some coaches are quiet and some coaches are loud.”
And while TV cameras are drawn to sideline flare-ups, Cronin makes sure to provide plenty of praise as well.
“If somebody makes a bad play, he’s quick to say, ‘Why are great players making bad plays?'” said Kilpatrick. “If he didn’t believe in us to be great players and take their game to the next level, then he wouldn’t say nothing at all.
“Everyone is happy to come to practice and everyone is willing to play hard. If you have a coach that’s on you 24/7, you’re probably going to say, ‘Come on, cut me some slack.’ He wants what’s best for you and that’s something that helps us a lot.”
“They give me great effort and they really care about winning,” said Cronin. “It’s allowed us to play smart. When guys are mentally focused and their mind is on winning, it allows you as a coach to make adjustments and it actually makes you look like you know what you’re doing at times. That doesn’t happen when their minds are not on winning and they’re tuning coaches out because all they care about are individual statistics. With this group, they want to win and they’re willing to do whatever it takes to win. They give me great effort – not just physical effort but mental effort as well.”
As a result, the Bearcats “Love Village” is 19-2 and ranked 13th in the country heading into Thursday’s showdown at #12 Louisville.
“We’re not always pretty, but I think you have to appreciate how much the kids want to win,” said Cronin.
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