CINCINNATI — Lakota West boys basketball coach Jim Leon can't wait to arrive in Indianapolis for the NCAA men's basketball Final Four Saturday.
Leon is enjoying every minute that UCLA head coach Mick Cronin - his former Woodward assistant coach - and the Bruins are in the tournament.
"He's like a professor," said Leon, who has coached high school basketball since the early 1980s. "He understands the game better than anybody I've ever been around."
Leon remembers the conversation he had with the former University of Cincinnati head coach as Leon offered Cronin the Woodward junior varsity coaching position in the summer of 1990.
Cronin, a former La Salle point guard, had just graduated from high school.
"He had just come off ACL surgery and there was a summer league over at Walnut Hills and I was over there with the (Woodward) kids," Leon said. "And Mick was in the stands on crutches."
Cronin told Leon he was preparing to attend UC and wasn't quite sure about coaching at the time though he considered helping his father, then-La Salle head coach Hep Cronin.
However, Leon encouraged them to take another look at coaching after some additional conversations. Within a week, Leon named Mick Cronin the Woodward junior varsity coach.
"He was a master at sitting down watching film, breaking it down and finding little things," Leon said.
"Little tendencies and weaknesses about the opponent. Things that I didn't have the patience for. I'd watch film - ok, 'They're playing this zone, they're running that play.' But, he would be like, 'Coach, watch his lead foot - every time he catches it.'"
That's why those who know Cronin well say it will be rewarding to watch UCLA (22-9) play Gonzaga (30-0) in a national semifinal at 8:34 p.m. Saturday at Lucas Oil Stadium.
In addition to the Cincinnati connection with Cronin, UCLA director of player development Nate Georgeton is a 2016 Moeller graduate.
Baylor (26-2) plays Houston (28-3) at 5:14 p.m. in Saturday's first national semifinal. Walnut Hills graduate MaCio Teague is one of Baylor's top players.
The national championship game is scheduled for Monday night in Indianapolis and Leon hopes to make a return trip.
Leon has already attended two tournament games including the Bruins' win over Michigan State at Mackey Arena in mid-March in the First Four.
"I was sitting close to the bench and Mick was just coaching his butt off," Leon said.
"It was so fun to watch him and the kids just dug in. When they beat Michigan State - Mick and I text each other a lot - he said, 'Jim, man the kids seem so confident now, like hey we belong here.'"
"I felt like I accomplished a lot at Cincinnati," Cronin told reporters this week.
"And I felt good about the fact that I gave everything I could to that position every day from my heart. It was time for a change and a challenge for me professionally as well, as I thought it would be great for my daughter as well. Look, we're not done. Tomorrow is never promised. This is great, but we got work to do. Hopefully I will be around to keep trying to chase the tradition and the expectations at UCLA. But it takes players so I don't like talking about it. Players win games and I really appreciate these guys for allowing me to coach them."
Mick Cronin is in the La Salle athletics hall of fame, and those who know him going back to high school aren't surprised by his success.
His father, Hep, is a former longtime Cincinnati-area high school basketball coach, including at La Salle.
“The Cronin name is legendary at La Salle High School," said Scott Troehler, La Salle's director of alumni.
"The La Salle community is extremely proud of him and what he has accomplished. This is just another great example of a Lancer alumnus climbing the ladder of success."
Mick Cronin was a standout point guard for the Lancers in the late 1980s through 1990. During one season, he led the city in assists and was second in the city in 3-point shooting percentage.
Cronin and La Salle basketball coach Pat Goedde, a 1991 La Salle grad, grew up playing sports together in Groesbeck and have remained friends.
"It's so cool," Goedde said. "I get all kinds of texts about Mick and I'm so happy for him. I'm so proud of him."
That pride is evident in the fact that Cronin has used instilled the principles of defense, rebounding and extra effort into his players at UCLA. The players have embraced his coaching style.
"He really has a good feel for what it takes and what it's about," said former La Salle coach Dan Fleming, who was an assistant under Hep Cronin.
"He has a good way of relating with his players, and they really trust him and it seems like he really trusts them."
Leon said he has also a good feeling about Saturday night's game even though the Bruins won't be favored. Leon isn't doubting Cronin in the Final Four.
"I get emotional watching him because I know how bad he wanted that and how hard he worked," Leon said.
"He did everything right. He really did. And the bottom line is he cares about kids and that was his motivation."