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COLLEGE BASKETBALL / NCAA TOURNAMENT

Testing 1-2-3. . .

In a Year Filled With Challenges, UCLA Coach Steve Lavin Faces the Latest--and Perhaps Greatest--Tonight When Bruins Face Iowa State in Semifinals of Midwest Regional

March 20, 1997|TIM KAWAKAMI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN ANTONIO — At a podium, with the lights on and the cameras recording, Steve Lavin can take your breath away, mostly because he never takes one himself.

He's a natural natterer, a soliloquizing, self-deprecating, 32-year-old motivational fireball, who just happens to be facing the coaching test of his young career tonight against the sixth-seeded Iowa State Cyclones in the Midwest Regional at the Alamodome.

If the UCLA coach hasn't survived enough tests this raucous season--from taking over the team two weeks before the first game, to his struggle to instill discipline in three mainstay players, to the early, ugly losses, to the 48-point bomb against Stanford, to earning the full-time job--this may be Lavin's most searing exam.

With the world watching and No. 2-seeded UCLA's Final Four hopes on the line, can a rookie coach who has coaxed his talented team away from its self-destructive tendencies and into an 11-game winning streak hold his own against Cyclone Coach Tim Floyd, generally acknowledged as one of the game's best strategists?

"Against Tim Floyd, the guy being chased by the Chicago Bulls, I've told our players it's up to them, because you know I'm going to get outcoached," Lavin joked Wednesday.

Lavin's players, though, know his flippancy in the face of questions about his coaching skill--hey, who wouldn't win 23 games with four future NBA players in the lineup?--probably masks a deeper emotion.

For a fast-talking rookie who some say lucked into one of the most prestigious jobs in America, the NCAA tournament is a proving ground, and Lavin vs. Floyd is a match made in X-and-O heaven.

"There's a chance for Lav to prove something against all the coaches he faces," said center Jelani McCoy, one of the team's freer spirits and someone who has flourished under Lavin. "I think a lot of coaches feel he doesn't belong, and he's been doing a great job.

"And definitely against Floyd, because everybody thinks Floyd's like 'the Brainiac,' that he has the answers for everything. I think it definitely gives the opportunity for Lav to show he belongs too."

For his part, Floyd, known for strictly controlling what each of his players does on the floor and trying to control the tempo and flow of the game, complimented Lavin for the way he simplified the Bruins' responsibilities, which, Floyd said, "seems to have given them their freedom."

Was that a nice way of saying that by abandoning the high-post offense and pretty much any sideline-called plays, Lavin just lets his talent take over?

Lavin, while spinning the over-my-head angle with a grin, did not seem nervous discussing the coaching matchup.

What will happen when Floyd maneuvers to take J.R. Henderson's low-post game out of UCLA's motion offense or denies Charles O'Bannon any cuts to the basket or tries to force Cameron Dollar into taking 15-foot jump shots?

Nothing different from what has happened all season, Lavin says calmly. Why try to anticipate strategy when it usually comes down to who plays harder and smarter, anyway?

"I think you can get carried away in beginning to believe that all these chess-match adjustments are really the key to coaching," Lavin said this week. "To me, you've got to have good players, you've got to get them in great condition, you've got to get them to play together as a team, and then you've got to continue to work on the fundamentals for the whole year.

"The other system is surprise and change, multiple defenses, multiple offenses, and that's going to keep the other team off-balance. I'm just not bright enough to be able to know all those different systems and styles, so I like to keep it simple.

"I'm a big believer that you don't change too much. We just want to play aggressive UCLA basketball, continue to attack and be aggressive."

You could say that Lavin can afford to touch only lightly on the strategic aspect of individual games because he has better talent than almost anybody in the nation.

Keeping his players content, making sure they attack opponents instead of being complacent. . . . Is that the kind of coaching that moves teams past inspired, brilliantly prepared tournament teams?

Just look at the results, McCoy said, and realize that UCLA was a team-wide mess back in December and is now one victory away from playing in the Midwest Regional final against the winner of the Minnesota-Clemson game.

"Michigan has all the athletes we have, Cincinnati does too," McCoy said, pointing to two teams no longer competing for the Final Four. "But Lav has taught us to get deeper into the possession, make the extra pass and do little things like that.

"A lot of teams have a lot of great athletes that can run up and down the floor. But it takes a coach to calm those athletes down and tell them to execute a play every now and then.

"He's definitely been coaching."

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