Last rites were in order. UCLA had lost six of seven basketball games and was drifting rudderless through last season. The Bruins were in peril of missing the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1986.
Suddenly, the team made a hard right turn and won eight games in a row--including a come-from-behind victory at then-No. 1 Stanford and a 35-point thrashing of Maryland in the second round of the tournament.
It was yet another turnaround for Coach Steve Lavin's Bruins, who habitually flirt with disaster before finishing with a skin-saving flourish. Three years earlier, the same team that dropped to 7-4 with a 109-61 loss at Stanford wound up winning the Pacific 10 Conference and advancing to the Elite Eight.
If John Wooden was the Wizard of Westwood, Lavin is the Houdini of Hilgard.
This UCLA team (4-3) has developed a reputation for losing games it should win and winning games it should lose. It opened this season with a one-point loss to Kansas and a victory over Kentucky, then lost to Cal State Northridge, eked past UC Santa Barbara and lost to wobbly Georgia Tech--expected to finish near the bottom of the Atlantic Coast Conference--before victories over Hawaii and UC Irvine.
No. 15 North Carolina (6-2), which visits Pauley Pavilion on Saturday, should present a far greater challenge than the Warriors or Anteaters. But, in light of their tendency to bail themselves out of tight spots, the Bruins are unfazed.
"Coach Lavin has a way of picking us up," said point guard Earl Watson, whose team won at North Carolina last season after a 1-2 start in conference. "He takes us to another level for big games."
That kind of talk drives a lot of UCLA fans crazy. Where, pray tell, was that sense of urgency against Northridge or Georgia Tech? Why couldn't the Bruins put the hammer to Santa Barbara or Irvine?
"If we could figure that out, we would have figured it out by now," center Dan Gadzuric said.
The Bruins are ranked 97th in the Sagarin ratings and are in the bottom half of nearly every statistical category among Pac-10 teams. Notably, they are ninth in scoring defense (77.4 points a game), and ninth in field-goal percentage--both offensive (43.4) and defensive (46.2)
They tend to play up or down to the level of their competition.
"We're a team that counterpunches well," assistant coach Michael Holton said. "You hit us a couple times, we get in there and mix it up and counterpunch well. But we haven't really learned how to punch yet. So when the game starts, we're not setting the tone. So what ends up happening is you end up in a close game down the stretch, and one or two things go your way or don't go your way, you feel a little pressure."
As a result, the Bruins either slam the door on teams or get their fingers crunched in the process. Lately, there's no predicting what will happen.
Lavin disagrees that his teams are at their best when up to their ankles in the muck. He says they tend to finish strong because the teaching is sinking in and players are in the flow on both ends of the court. He says it's risky to label a team in December, rather than waiting to analyze things after the season.
How do the Tar Heels wind up losing at home by 17 to Kentucky, a team UCLA beat by five? How does Arizona have three losses already? How does Wake Forest roast Kansas by 31?
"Hey," Lavin said, "Alan Greenspan couldn't figure this stuff out."
This much is clear: With three losses, UCLA has worn its margin of error wafer-thin. The Bruins have four nonconference games remaining--at home against the Tar Heels and Villanova, on the road against Purdue and DePaul. Even if they sweep those games, they would need to win at least 10 conference games--hardly a simple task--for a realistic chance of reaching the tournament. No Pac-10 team has survived Selection Sunday with fewer than 18 victories.
UCLA players say they understand the importance of Saturday's game, and they're well aware of the importance of playing well on national TV. Guard Ray Young has even selected the designer outfit he plans to wear before and after the game.
"I'll lay it out the night before," Young said. "The shirt will be ironed and the pants will be freshly creased. I'll have my Armani cologne ready too."
Sooner or later, the Bruins will need to be similarly inspired for every game, whether or not their season hangs in the balance. Otherwise, they could find themselves all dressed up with nowhere to go.