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MARCH MADNESS / NCAA MEN'S TOURNAMENT | BILL PLASCHKE

He Has Redefined Coaching

March 16, 2000|BILL PLASCHKE

MINNEAPOLIS — Granddaddy Willie had a phrase for those times the Plaschke children would run in from the yard with their shirt on backward or their shoes on the wrong feet.

"Yer all balled up," he would say.

Those words seem fitting today for anyone trying to figure out the chaotic but cheerful, regrettable but resilient, staggered but surviving UCLA basketball coach.

As the Bruins prepare to face Ball State in the first round of Steve Lavin's annual redemption tour, we critics are all balled up.

Can he coach?

The question was asked of Lavin in this space last November. It was followed by a prediction that this season would offer a definitive answer.

And it has.

The answer is no.

Well, sort of no.

OK, it was no in the beginning, then maybe, then no-way-in-you-know-what, then perhaps, then . . .

Today, almost like one of those plays he draws during late-game timeouts, the question has illogically twisted and turned and come full circle.

Do we still know whether he can coach?

The question lingers. Only now, for the third time in four years, Lavin has it right where he wants it.

With a talented team facing manageable NCAA tournament matchups.

Two grand gestures from a season's worth of forgiveness.

Even with Dan Gadzuric's latest thumb injury, the Bruins defeat Ball State tonight because they are better.

They also defeat Maryland on Saturday because, in a battle with another highlight-dependent team, the Bruins produce better ones.

They can defeat even Iowa State next week because Iowa State will be freaking out while the Bruins will be too, um, disorganized to freak out.

That would put Lavin back in the Elite Eight for the second time in four years and shut everyone up.

Or would it? Or should it?

Sift through the shreds of controversy and disappointment and triumph that have piled up during Lavin's four years here, and a couple of things stick out.

If the Bruins lose to Ball State as they lost to Detroit Mercy in last year's first round, Lavin will be lucky to last the summer.

If they win the national championship, Lavin stays for the next 10 years.

Somewhere in between is that murky ground upon which the coach has stood since replacing Jim Harrick, a constantly shifting terrain that makes one wonder.

Maybe we need to ask another question.

Before it is determined whether he can coach, maybe somebody should explain, what exactly is coaching?

If coaching is game preparation, then this season Lavin struggled.

I didn't say this. Gonzaga did. Colorado State did.

Two inferior teams with unique styles that the Bruins couldn't figure out. Two embarrassing losses.

If coaching is sideline adjustments, then Lavin also struggled.

Don't look at me. Look at the home loss to Cal, where the Bruins didn't have a clue down the stretch. Look at the bad loss at Arizona State, where the Bruins were whipped early and appeared to give up.

If coaching is practicing, then, well, Lavin also struggled.

I didn't say this. Folks who have watched them did.

Standing outside Stanford's Maples Pavilion recently, two good basketball men talked of witnessing the previous day's workouts.

They said Stanford's practice resembled a classroom.

They said UCLA's practice resembled recess.

It wasn't the first time this story had been told.

Of course, shortly thereafter, the two basketball men watched UCLA pull out one of its most inspiring and dramatic wins in several seasons.

And that's the issue here.

Lavin cannot pass inspection in any of the areas that define conventional good coaching.

Except that one where the coach coaxes a win against DePaul after a loss to Gonzaga . . . and a win at North Carolina after a loss to USC . . . and a six-game winning streak after six losses in seven games.

He does his best work when the noose is the tightest.

But should a group of college kids have to gasp that much?

And isn't that one of the reasons some local high school stars have gone cold on the Bruins? A reason they could not recruit now-Stanford star Casey Jacobsen from right down the road?

Can Steve Lavin coach?

Yeah, but only after games in which he appears not to coach.

And the latter outnumber the former.

So here we are again.

Waiting to see if the rewards will outweigh the remorse.

There were some longtime UCLA fans who actually thought the Stanford victory was the worst thing that could have happened to the program, equating it to the pretty patching of a bad tire that should be changed before it blows.

Those same fans are probably now caught up in the wave of inspiration that some feel can carry this team to the Elite Eight, even further.

The thing about Steve Lavin is, you know his teams will be playing in mid-March. But you know it will be madness.

*

Bill Plaschke can be reached at his e-mail address: bill.plaschke@latimes.com.

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