A college freshman’s palate is predictable, whether he hails from France, Slovenia or Riverside. Mick Cronin knew what would satisfy them all when he invited the largest group of newcomers he’s assembled at UCLA over to his Encino home for a team pool party.
“The cheeseburger,” Cronin said Sunday night during a telephone interview with The Times, “is a worldwide sandwich.”
The Bruins played Jenga and cornhole, soaked in a backyard hot tub and scarfed down enough cheeseburgers to cause a local beef supply shortage. A variety of accents wafted through the afternoon air as a handful of Europeans mingled with their domestic teammates as part of an almost entirely new roster.
Freshmen Aday Mara and Berke Buyuktuncel sent their regrets — they remained overseas with their respective national teams preparing for the FIBA World Cup — but Jan Vide and Ilane Fibleuil were among the foreign imports who enjoyed their coach’s hospitality on a warm late-summer day.
A toast might have been in order given the worldwide haul of talent Cronin and his staff brought in, having recently completed an eight-man recruiting class that includes seven freshmen and transfer guard Lazar Stefanovic. Cronin and former assistant coach Ivo Simovic combined to make multiple trips to Europe while also navigating the sometimes tricky admissions process involving international prospects.
Mara recently untangled himself from his Spanish club team after what appeared to be a contentious situation in which the team said it would “adopt the necessary measures” to enforce Mara’s contract.
“We were confident — everybody was committed a long time ago,” Cronin said. ‘It’s just getting through some hoops we had to jump through; that’s part of international recruiting.”
The team is halfway through the 10 summer practices it was granted in advance of a 10-day trip to Spain starting Aug. 20. The Bruins are scheduled to play two all-star teams and a professional team while traveling to Madrid, Valencia and Barcelona.
The agenda calls for team bonding and player development. Wins are optional.
“Some people go over and they’re worried about winning or losing and I could care less,” Cronin said. “I hope all three teams are really good and it’s an opportunity for us to get better.”
Cronin said he saved the international trip that college teams can take once every four years for this summer because he knew it would provide an opportunity for extra teaching that’s needed with so many young players as part of a massive roster overhaul.
Ball movement has been an early emphasis for a team that’s expected to feature two point guards on the court at any moment in addition to several unusually skilled big men.
Sophomore center Adem Bona won’t play on the trip while he continues to rehabilitate the shoulder he hurt late last season, though he’s expected to be fully cleared to return by the start of fall practice. Mara and Buyuktuncel will be playing elsewhere with their respective national teams, but Mara is expected to visit the Bruins while they’re in his home country.
At 7-foot-3, Mara will be the tallest player Cronin has coached. Cronin indicated Mara would often be deployed alongside the 6-foot-9 Bona as part of the first two-big lineup he has used since pairing Cody Riley with Jalen Hill early in his first season with the Bruins.
“We’re definitely going to have a bigger team than I’ve ever had,” Cronin said.
Incredibly mobile for his size, Mara is also a skilled passer who is comfortable operating out of the high post, allowing Bona to operate closer to the basket where he’s a constant lob threat. Their roles could be reversed defensively given Bona’s ability to roam the perimeter and guard much smaller players during what figures to be his final college season.
“Adem’s going to be our best player,” Cronin said.
As part of a dual point-guard lineup, sophomore Dylan Andrews could often play alongside Vide or fellow freshman Sebastian Mack, who has been one of the early practice standouts.
“Sebastian Mack is going to surprise a lot of people with how good he is,” Cronin said. “He’s always in attack mode and he’s got great toughness, so you know that’s something I believe in.”
While Jaime Jaquez Jr. and Jaylen Clark have moved on to the NBA, Cronin has imported two replacements reminiscent of those fan favorites. Cronin described the 6-foot-9 Buyuktuncel as a taller, left-handed version of Jaquez because of his ability to lead a team in scoring, rebounding, assists or blocked shots in any game.
“Just a guy who can do everything — a very versatile player,” Cronin said of Buyuktuncel, who, like Mara, is expected to be on campus in early September. “There’s a reason every NBA team knows who he is.”
The 6-foot-6 Fibleuil has earned comparisons to Clark because of his defensive relentlessness, and the 6-foot-11 Devin Williams has impressed with his footwork and ability to catch the ball in the post. Williams, who starred for Corona Centennial High, is one of three U.S. freshmen on the team alongside Mack (Las Vegas) and guard Brandon Williams (New York).
Cronin said the team’s recruiting base would remain in Southern California, though in some years gaps in talent or a lack of good fits at positions of need could compel the Bruins to “recruit all over, hence all over the world. We took ‘all over’ to heart this year.” Mara came from Spain, Fibleuil from France, Vide from Slovenia and Buyuktuncel from Turkey.
Even with Simovic having moved on to the Toronto Raptors, Cronin said his staff remained poised to thrive in international recruiting. The Bruins hired Nemanja Jovanovic — one of Simovic’s best friends and a fellow Serbian — as an assistant coach and director of international recruiting.
Cronin said Jovanovic being one of two new assistants limited to on-campus recruiting would not hinder his ability to bring in players from overseas given the contacts that come with his having coached in three European countries. He’ll be assisted in international recruiting by Cronin and new assistant Nate Georgeton, who replaced Simovic and faces no travel restrictions.
“It’s not like you can go [overseas] every week anyway,” Cronin said. “I mean, Ivo only went twice.”
The result of those trips was on display over the weekend in Cronin’s backyard, the international intrigue just starting.