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COLLEGE BASKETBALL / NCAA TOURNAMENT

Bruins Play Follow the Leader and It Works

College basketball: After last year's early exit, UCLA is doing things Lavin's way in finding a postseason groove.

March 17, 1997|TIM KAWAKAMI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

See what happens when you can yell at each other and smile about it?

You can crawl back from chaos, crumple up the NIT predictions and move only two Midwest Regional victories away from completing an Indianapolis 360--a total spin-around from the bunch of no-look passers and no-pass preeners who got pounced on by Princeton a year ago at the very same RCA Dome that hosts the Final Four later this month.

In a season of countless touchstone moments, the beaming Bruins walking triumphantly back into the scene of the whine would probably top it all.

"We have total confidence in each other," said forward Charles O'Bannon. "When you have that, you can do special things."

Beyond the motion offense and multiple defenses, O'Bannon's brilliant season and Cameron Dollar's transformation from a point guard to a lead guard, beyond even Coach Steve Lavin's peppy platitudes about "Bruin attitude," the true reformation of this team has been more spiritual than technical.

You saw it when Dollar roared at O'Bannon to start rebounding in the middle of a huge home game, and O'Bannon nodded his head, grabbed two in a row, then thanked Dollar in the locker room after the victory.

You saw it when Dollar snapped at Kris Johnson late in the Xavier game on Saturday to immediately cease and desist his running exchange with a Musketeer player, and Johnson did just that, then laughed about it later.

You see it when the players are together in their hotel, playing darts in the power-outage chill last weekend or quizzing each other about the rest of the tournament field; and you see it when they get on a media conference podium and tease each other about their individual responsibilities.

"I think that typifies how far we've come," Dollar said.

Against the odds and the better judgment of anybody who saw them bicker and brood their way through last season and big chunks of this one, the unconventional Bruins are flourishing with on-floor peace, love and the occasional understanding bark.

This is probably Lavin's landmark accomplishment: The Bruin players are closer friends with each other now than even the 1995 national-title team--which fed off of Ed O'Bannon's fire more than general giddiness--and it shows in the crisp passing on court, the giggles in the locker room and the 11-game winning streak on the ledger.

The lowest moment, says Dollar, came in late December, when the trauma of Jim Harrick's firing six weeks earlier had worn off--but UCLA, making many of the same mistakes it made against Princeton, couldn't handle Illinois in Chicago's United Center, dropping the Bruin record to 3-3.

Players were still going one-on-one and ignoring instructions when things got tough, not so much a sign of selfishness but of a lack of faith in their teammates. Opponents were still finding open shots in crucial moments because UCLA continued to have mental lapses.

The whole season was close to going up in flames, and the Bruins, however many future NBA players on the roster and whatever excuses they could list, knew it.

"Losing makes you search your heart, more than anything else," Dollar said. "And after we lost to Illinois, [a reporter] asked me what was wrong, and I didn't know, and I said I'd tell you as soon as I do.

"But that was the turning point for us. That's when we said, 'OK, this isn't working, Lavin, you show us how you think things should be.'

"We pretty much put ourselves in his hands at that point, and he took us under his wing, and we started doing things the way he'd been telling us to do it--sharing the ball, keeping our cool on the floor, not letting things bother us too much, just playing through--and that's how we got here."

That night, there was a players-only meeting--actually, called by Dollar after a suggestion from Lavin--and the Bruins beat a mediocre St. Louis team two nights later and savored it with a blend of relief and satisfaction.

What did they finally figure out? That this team was not good enough to play bad basketball and get away with it; that each player was capable enough to be counted on for contributions at crunchtime; that laughing and teasing was a whole lot better than pointing fingers and angling for increased shots.

The mood got better, but the basketball did not follow right away. UCLA won three more in a row, to lift it to 7-3, leading to Jan. 9 at Maples Pavilion, and the devastating, 109-61 loss to Stanford.

But, instead of the gloom of the Illinois loss, Toby Bailey, Johnson and Dollar were almost light-hearted, brushing off the defeat as something that could not be avoided against a red-hot team.

And, instead of loafing through practice the next day, one day before the game against California, UCLA blasted through a 60-minute up-and-down workout, then broke up into shooting pairs, where Henderson and Bailey did Buster Keaton-style impressions of each other's flailing shot selections of the previous night.

They beat Cal, starting a run of quality play (even the back-to-back losses to Louisville and Oregon were intensely played), and the laughter has gotten ever louder from there.

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