Like everyone else inside Pauley Pavilion, Mick Cronin has seen the public service announcement on the video board. He’s heard the message.
Mental health is essential. Take time for yourself. Let’s make sure everyone is OK.
What the UCLA basketball coach has seen when it comes to his team’s reshuffled late-season schedule left him wondering what’s really being prioritized.
Is the Pac-12 Conference more interested in athlete welfare or profits?
The No. 13 Bruins open a stretch of six games in 12 days Thursday night when they face Washington State at Pauley Pavilion. It’s the sort of relentless schedule that might make his players feel like they’re already in the NBA.
“Why, is the question,” Cronin said on the eve of his busiest stretch in three seasons with the Bruins. “The frustrating thing for coaches — and I’m speaking for a lot of my other counterparts in this conference, this is not just Mick Cronin — is to us, that talk is idle talk because if we care about mental health and we care about academics and what’s best for the student-athletes, then that should be paramount first and foremost in every decision that’s made, because in the same breath, in the same meetings, we say, ‘They’re not pros, they’re amateurs; we can’t pay them.’ I don’t say it, the NCAA says it, the Pac-12 says it.
“I don’t know any amateurs that play six games in 12 days, so, to me, the hypocrisy is obvious.”
The Pac-12 acknowledged regretting the condensed schedules while contending the mandate to play as many games as possible did not come from greedy executives counting every dollar. Given the prevalence of vaccinated players, conference athletic directors felt they could safely play a full schedule that preserved competitive equity. Along those same lines, the NCAA tournament selection committee released a statement last month encouraging teams to play as many games as their rosters would allow.
Of course, that doesn’t make the fallout of playing every other day any easier.
“We no longer look at good situations; we are trading off, as I call it, least-worst solutions,” said Jamie Zaninovich, the Pac-12 deputy commissioner who oversees basketball. “None of this is ideal.”
At one point this season, the conference had eight teams on pause because of COVID-19 outbreaks, leading officials to develop a framework for finding pockets to reschedule the 17 games that were postponed.
Among other safeguards, the Pac-12 limited teams to no more than three games in a week. It also tried to impose that busy workweek as sparingly as possible and group games together geographically whenever it could.
Few teams were affected as much as UCLA. After a 26-day layoff, the Bruins needed to reschedule four conference games, tied for the most of any team in the Pac-12. They ticked off Arizona last month and Stanford last week, leaving a home game against Arizona State and a road game against Washington.
The game against the Sun Devils will be played Monday to complete a three-game homestand before the Bruins commence a three-game trip concluding Feb. 28 in Seattle against the Huskies. The Pac-12 could have moved the latter game to March 1 or March 2 to space out the games, but that would have necessitated either an extra trip to or a longer stay in the Pacific Northwest.
After consultation with Bruins athletic director Martin Jarmond and associate athletic director Chris Carlson, Zaninovich said, the decision was made to play Washington two days after the Bruins faced Oregon State.
“They’re all tradeoffs, right?” Zaninovich said. “You pull one lever and something else comes out.”
Cronin knows his team is hardly the only one to go through this, Stanford having recently endured a similar busy stretch in which it went 3-3 while playing six games in 12 days. The Bruins plan to adjust their practice schedule accordingly, emphasizing mental preparation and physical therapy, to lighten the load while playing every other day.
“It’s our first time doing something like this,” point guard Tyger Campbell said. “So I don’t know what coach is going to have us do, whether that’s taking off practices, or not go as hard. But this is new for me.”
If all goes well for UCLA in its bid to reach a second consecutive Final Four, the Bruins will spend parts of six of the next seven weeks on the road while experiencing a nomadic existence. It’s a professional lifestyle without the paycheck.
“If we’re going to treat them like pros, we need to pay them. That’s my quote,” Cronin said. “Everything goes back to money. If we’re doing it for the NCAA tournament, that’s for schools to make more money, if we’re doing it for TV revenue, that’s for schools to make more money.
“Try being a senior and being Jules Bernard and working on your econ degree at UCLA and have six games in 12 days. Good luck concentrating academically for those two weeks, and then you’ve got the Pac-12 and NCAA tournaments.”
To be fair, it was nearly impossible for the Pac-12 to anticipate having to deal with a pandemic in back-to-back seasons. The conference did not construct this season’s schedule with built-in flexibility like last season, when it accommodated 126 of 130 conference games.
Even so, there were complaints about the four games that weren’t played. USC’s Isaiah Mobley groused that Oregon had “stole the Pac-12 championship from us” last season after the Ducks prevailed in the conference standings based on a better winning percentage achieved across fewer games. It was an alleged wrong rectified only when the Trojans throttled Oregon in the NCAA tournament to reach their first Elite Eight in 20 years.
The Pac-12 is on track to play every conference game this season. The question is whether that was necessary. Cronin noted that he did not try to make up canceled nonconference games against Alabama State and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo to pad his team’s record.
“I mean, COVID happens, you’ve got to move down the road,” Cronin said. “To me, it totally speaks to, we say they’re student-athletes but we run our programs, we run our conference and we run the NCAA tournament like a business and that’s why people in the media and NBA players take shots at college sports and it’s hard to argue with them.
“It’s a shame because college basketball is still the best way to develop as a player. I’m not trying to blow [conference and NCAA officials] up, but to me, this is why players, when people say, ‘Oh, they’re getting a scholarship,’ they’re not normal student-athletes. You can’t compare apples to oranges. If we were the soccer team, they wouldn’t remake the games. We just wouldn’t. That’s why they should get paid. You treat them like pros, you need to pay them like pros.”
Up next for UCLA: Thursday vs. Washington State
When: 8 p.m. PST
Where: Pauley Pavilion, UCLA campus
On the air: TV: FS1; Radio: 1150
Update: A three-game losing streak has left Washington State (14-10 overall, 7-6 Pac-12) in desperation mode as it tries to qualify for its first NCAA tournament since 2008. The Cougars have won only twice in 63 tries against the Bruins in Los Angeles, their last victory coming in 2009.