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COLLEGE BASKETBALL 1998-99

It's More Recess Than Rebuilding

UCLA: Bruins are so young, it's difficult to say what the season will be like for Lavin.

November 19, 1998|SCOTT HOWARD-COOPER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

OK, so there's this young basketball coach, single, with jelled-up, swept-back dark hair. Has a tan and all that youthful stuff. And he has three assistants, two of whom are also single.

And they have this team, see, a real young basketball team that might start all sophomores and freshmen when one of the kids--a sophomore--gets back from a knee injury. The team has one senior and one junior, and the junior isn't expected to play much.

So, obviously, this coach is going to start, well, aging--fast. His smooth face will suddenly start looking like a road map. Spiky invaders will sprout from his scalp. . . .

"I hope he does get some gray hairs," Baron Davis says, smiling. "That'd be sweet."

Steve Lavin, the coach of this UCLA basketball team, the guy who gets to deal with the excitement and frustration these talented young players will generate, may not agree with that last part. But he does know one thing.

"We're going to make that movie," he says. "Three coaches and a baby."

Without stopping at one baby.

The Bruins of 1998-99 will have a grand total of one player with more than 35 games' experience--senior Brandon Loyd--when they open the season tonight at 7:30 against Santa Clara at Pauley Pavilion. Apparently, they all got permission to stay out after dark. Even on a school night.

Lavin has purposely refrained from calling this a rebuilding season, which may be fair because that term stirs thoughts of a team that will lurch along while waiting for some talent to arrive. UCLA that is not.

Yet the doubts that exist are obvious and well founded. It's not only that the Bruins are young. Duke is young, but also ranked No. 1 in the preseason poll because it has five players who averaged at least 15 minutes during the 32-4 campaign of 1997-98.

UCLA?

Two.

Even that might be generous, considering Davis is still working his way back from the torn knee ligament suffered in the second round of last spring's NCAA tournament, was kept out of every scrimmage and exhibition game at the start of this, his sophomore year, and will play with time restrictions when he does return.

That lessens his potential impact in the early going. That also leaves Earl Watson as the lone Bruin who will start tonight after having played a prominent role last season.

Lavin must replace 70% of the scoring, 67% of his rebounding and three of his five 50% shooters from the team that went 24-9 and reached the Sweet 16.

He must temporarily replace the starting point guard, Davis, which isn't terribly serious because Watson can play the point.

But then he must replace Watson at shooting guard, which may be a problem.

He must replace the entire front court.

And he must do it while playing a schedule that includes the Pacific 10 Conference minefield and a nonconference slate that has preseason No. 13 Oklahoma State, No. 20 Syracuse and, probably, No. 6 Maryland in the second round of the Puerto Rico Shootout next week, a tournament that also has No. 4 Kentucky and No. 17 Xavier of Ohio.

At the very least, disregarding the potential matchups in San Juan, the Bruins will have eight games against five opponents currently in the top 20.

"I can already sense it's a team that enjoys challenges," Lavin said. "They like the fact that people are going to underestimate us."

They don't underestimate UCLA much. The Bruins opened at No. 12.

"All I've told our team is, I don't want our youth to be a cop-out if we have any failure," Lavin said.

On the other hand, UCLA did see this transition season coming, so it also scheduled Delaware State, Cal State Northridge, American and Loyola Marymount in a six-game stretch in December.

It also helps that the two most prominent returnees are in the backcourt. Davis and Watson--in a perfect Bruin world, the starters at the point and the wing, respectively--can control the tempo that way and offer stability.

"That's where you want to start, there's absolutely no question," Washington Coach Bob Bender said. "When I was an assistant at Duke, we were always fortunate that when we were going to have a young team, we had a very experienced point guard. I think that's where you're going to able to handle a lot of the inconsistencies."

With Watson at the point until Davis' return, however, there's a hole at the other guard spot. Rico Hines would have been a strong candidate to fill it, but he has been out about two weeks because of a sprained knee. Loyd, the three-point weapon, could get the start. He averaged 7.5 minutes as a junior. Maybe Ryan Bailey, who sat out last season as a transfer from Penn State.

The challenge is even greater up front. JaRon Rush is already a gifted player. Jerome Moiso is already fluid in the mold of fellow European big men who can shoot and dribble. Dan Gadzuric will provide a hulking presence and become a factor inside.

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