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THE INSIDE TRACK | DIANE PUCIN

Coaching Calamity Keeps UCLA Caught in Quagmire

December 24, 2000|DIANE PUCIN

A college basketball program with a pedigree probably never should hire a coach without one.

Once again that was obvious at Pauley Pavilion.

UCLA played North Carolina. These are the two college teams with the most Final Four appearances in history. These are two college teams that should always matter. These are two college teams that never should give the job of coach to a man who doesn't have big-time experience.

The Bruins were treated with brutal disrespect in the first half by the Tar Heels. So what happened in the second half, the spirited comeback, the way Earl Watson played with a heart so big it must have been ready to burst through his chest, the way the crowd roused itself into a frenzy before filing out in despair, all that didn't matter.

What mattered was that North Carolina came here and won, 80-70.

What mattered was that the young coach with the pedigree, Matt Doherty, sat in a chair and said, "We are North Carolina. We should win some of these games."

The Tar Heels had lost this season to Kentucky, at home, and to defending champion and arguably the nation's best team, Michigan State, on the road. Doherty was embarrassed by this. He expects more, and that's what he got Saturday.

The coach without the pedigree, Steve Lavin, has sat in the same chair and expressed satisfaction with near-losses to lesser schools like UC Santa Barbara and UC Irvine. Watson has been forced to say things like defeating Irvine in the last minute was a victory he was grateful for.

That's what happens when your coach played at Chapman University and never held a big-time coaching position before being handed the UCLA job.

Doherty played college basketball for Dean Smith at North Carolina, competed in two Final Fours and played on one national champion and one runner-up. Lavin played at San Francisco State and Chapman. You don't have to have played at a big-time program to be a successful coach.

But Doherty was on a floor with a basketball in his hand on the biggest college stage available. He knows what the pressure feels like. His players know he knows that.

"Coach Doherty can tell us things because he's done them," North Carolina sophomore guard Joseph Forte says.

Doherty did most of his coaching apprenticeship under Roy Williams at Kansas. He worked for seven years in a program run well and with class. He then became a head coach and although it was only for one year, the program, Notre Dame, was one with high expectations. Doherty learned about hiring his own assistants, running his own practices, developing his own recruiting plan.

Lavin was a graduate assistant under Gene Keady at Purdue and, while Keady has been a fine coach, his program isn't at the level of North Carolina or Kansas. We all know about Lavin's UCLA experience under Jim Harrick, how Lavin got the job under incredibly tense circumstances and how he has kept it almost by default.

"Fifty-two, 52," Doherty shouts from the bench. That's the number of a play on offense. The Tar Heels run it and Forte ends up with a nifty, 10-foot jump shot. Forte scores.

"Move, move," Lavin shouts from the bench. The Bruins move. They move around the baseline until Jason Kapono jacks up a 25-foot three-point shot that travels about 24 feet. Kapono does not score. Lavin is fond of screaming "box out" while Doherty is holding up fingers, two of them, three of them. Different plays, different things to try.

Lavin is enthusiastic and emotional, and that's how the Bruins play for 15 minutes in the second half. They take a lead because Watson and Matt Barnes play by instinct and with every ounce of energy they have. But instinct and energy aren't enough. Not when you are wearing UCLA blue and playing against Carolina blue.

More is expected. More should be expected.

Doherty, 38, looks like a coach. His hair is gray, and it gives him a hint of authority. Sometimes it's not bad to look older than your age. Doherty speaks honestly and with command. The Tar Heels need to work on their press offense, he says. He doesn't make excuses, even though two of his top players, Julius Peppers and Ronald Curry, are still in shape for football and not basketball.

Lavin, 36, seems to want to look like a UCLA student. He speaks in long sentences, but there isn't much being said. Ray Young, Lavin says, "has to do other aspects of his offensive game." Other aspects? "Ray Young has to bring all aspects of his offensive game to the forefront," Lavin says. A big sentence with little meaning. Lavin sounds like someone playing at being a basketball coach.

Doherty gave Watson a big hug at the end of the game and said later that he had made a mistake at Kansas.

"We should have recruited Earl instead of Khalid El-Amin and Baron Davis," Doherty said. "What a player."

Watson wouldn't say it, but you have to wonder that while he was getting that hug did he wish a little bit that he was playing for Doherty, the man with the pedigree?

*

Diane Pucin can be reached at her e-mail address: diane.pucin@latimes.com.

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