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COLLEGE BASKETBALL / NCAA TOURNAMENT

UCLA's March: Baron or Barren?

Freshman Davis Will Be Expected to Pick Up Game in Tournament

March 13, 1998|TIM KAWAKAMI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ATLANTA — For Baron Davis and the UCLA Bruins, the next step is part magic, part mechanics.

It's a switch of gears, and the stuff of dreams: from inconsistent to incandescent, from being a complementary part to being a player the whole world watches.

And, if sixth-seeded UCLA is lucky and the freshman guard is prepared, Davis' run to stardom starts here tonight in the Bruins' first-round South Regional matchup at the Georgia Dome against the defense-minded, 11th-seeded Miami Hurricanes.

"We need Baron Davis to be Baron Davis--that crazy, freakish kind of talent that he is," said senior swingman Kris Johnson. "He's kind of held back. He's sacrificed a lot this year because of us seniors.

"Every game from now on, we need that. Step up and make yourself a star. For a freshman, the tournament, that's where stars are born."

Davis won't turn 19 until next month, and, he too concedes that he has deferred to Johnson, Toby Bailey and J.R. Henderson through much of this season.

The result has been some great moments by the seniors, some highlight-film finishes by Davis, and a whole lot of chaotic play as the seniors and Davis tried to figure out each other's proper place.

But Davis knows that, for UCLA to gain momentum through the tournament and beat Miami and maybe Michigan and who knows beyond that, he needs to be the catalyst--just as he was Saturday in a free-flowing, frenetic performance against Arizona and All-American point guard Mike Bibby.

If the Bruins found a personality in the last few weeks, when they lost Jelani McCoy and got into fast-paced wars against Washington, Arizona State and Arizona, it was Davis' doing, and Davis' personality they found.

"I feel that I'm at my best when I'm not out there second-guessing anything, when I'm on the attack nonstop," Davis said. "That's when this team's really clicking, when no one's really thinking too much, where everybody's just attacking.

"I think the latter part of league [play], I was thinking, 'Should I take this three? This guy's backing off of me. Should I drive? What should I do here, what should I do here?' Instead of playing basketball and just having fun."

"All three of [the seniors] told me to be more assertive. I have to come out and score."

Earl Watson, Davis' freshman partner in the backcourt, says that despite the expectations that preceded Davis to Westwood, Davis didn't want to step on anybody's toes and sought instead to set the tone with manic defense.

"Baron's a nice person," Watson said. "He doesn't want anyone feeling like he's trying to take over. [But] he knew he couldn't play that role for the whole season. I think he picked his spot."

Even when he played with total abandon, though, Davis ran into trouble this season--specifically, foul trouble. He fouled out nine times in 30 games, and had four fouls in eight other games.

At different times, Davis will either brush off the foul problems with a shrug or say he knows he has to alter his aggressive style to make sure he stays in games.

But Henderson said there is nothing contradictory about what must happen in the tournament.

"He's got to play aggressively without fouling," Henderson said. "This is crunch time and he knows we need him. I expect him to come through."

Davis, whom many people expected to come in and lead UCLA in scoring, had a couple of high-scoring games early when Johnson and McCoy were suspended, but has scored 20 or more only three times this season--and only once since November, averaging 11.8 points.

There has been a noticeable increase, however, in his offensive efficiency and an improvement in his shooting touch since he single-handedly kept the Bruins in the game against Duke--for a little while--by making four three-pointers in the first half.

Davis still hasn't taken more than 14 shots in any game--Bailey took 17 shots in the second half at Washington--but Bailey thinks someone with Davis' explosive talents can't always be dominant in college.

"I've always felt that the college game is better suited for different people," Bailey said. "Maybe if a Kobe Bryant went to school, he might not have exploded like he did in the pros. I think Baron might have been the same way.

"You see little spurts of his explosion, but right here in the system that we have, with the guys that we have on our team, he's kind of been harnessed a little bit.

"But he's definitely stepped up and proven to be, if not the best, one of the best point guards in the nation. I have no complaints about the way he's played at all."

Which leads directly to the next question about Davis: Just as he gets comfortable in college, will he take off this spring for the NBA, where he can earn millions and play a style more suited to his acrobatic abilities?

"I think he knows it'd be a bad choice to come out too early," said Henderson, who says Davis has spoken to him about the issue. "I think he needs another two years to kind of mature and get used to the game a little bit more.

"He has all the skills. just the other part, the mental part, you've got to put that together too. There's a lot of tough, hard-nosed guards at the next level, that's something you've really got to prepare yourself for."

For his part, Davis has consistently said he doesn't plan to leave after this season.

But there is no question that he has thought about it, that he has been advised by some to do it, and that he would be a certain top-15 draft choice.

"Baron's not leaving," Watson said pointedly. "He told me the other day--he's staying. He better not go anywhere."

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