Volume 91, Issue 90

Thursday, March 19, 1998

Howe 'bout it



Bruins bite back

Steve Lavin still has a long way to go before his UCLA team makes it to the Final Four, but of all the Sweet 16 coaches, Lavin may deserve the most respect.

That's not to say Rhode Island's Jim Harrick, Valparaiso's Homer Drew and the other teams aren't worthy of kudos, but Lavin has taken a Bruin team that has been marred by turmoil from day one and kept his team from self-destructing in the NCAA championship tourney.

UCLA started the season with high expectations, with a slew of talented players and a starting lineup comprised of five potential first-round NBA picks in Jelani McCoy, Baron Davis, J.R. Henderson, Toby Bailey and Kris Johnson.

The Bruins were expected to challenge Arizona for the Pacific10 Conference title, but surprisingly they didn't pose a legitimate threat finishing with a decent, but disappointing, 24-8 record and a losing record (6-7) against 1998 tournament teams.

When UCLA tipped-off the season against North Carolina, they were ranked sixth in the nation, but by the time they played Arizona in their final pre-tournament match, the Bruins had plummeted to 17th.

What prevented the Bruins from realizing their potential was the off-court distractions that have characterized the team this season. It all started last fall when centre Jelani McCoy, a highly-touted future NBA prospect and teammate Kris Johnson were suspended for violating team and athletic department rules. Both would return in December, but McCoy called it quits in February.

The Bruins never seemed to get into a rhythm, as they were able to beat lesser opponents, but lost to higher-skilled ones. Some of UCLA's losses were out-right embarrassing, like 40-point-plus losses to North Carolina and Duke.

However, in their final pre-tournament game, the Bruins showed signs they were turning things around during a narrow four-point loss to the second-ranked and defending national champs, Arizona.

Still, no one would give UCLA a snowball's chance in hell to make any noise in March with the belief that the California boys were still distracted by the off-court drama. Well, they've proven everyone wrong.

As the sixth-seed in the South region, the Bruins have recorded two big victories against 11th-seeded Miami and more importantly third-seeded Michigan, a team that came into the tourney red-hot after wining the Big 10 Conference tourney.

What made the win even more remarkable was that the Bruins prevailed despite the loss of their point guard Baron Davis, who was the Pac-10 freshman of the year and was in the game for only 14 minutes due to injury.

The loss of Davis, who tore his anterior cruciate ligament, is a big one for UCLA, but also provides an eerie feeling of déja-vu. Remember how in 1995, the Bruins lost point guard Tyus Edney to injury, yet the team sucked it up and went on to win it all?

But they still have a long road to travel that will most likely go through Kentucky and Duke, if the Bruins are to make it to the Final Four.

It could happen. After all it is March Madness and teams which aren't expected to do well are often the ones who end up biting people in the behind. Nonetheless, Lavin deserves credit for getting his team into the Sweet 16, even if the Bruins still aren't raising any eyebrows or getting any respect.

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